Policy Note

PolicyNote's picture
Policy Note delivers timely, progressive commentary on issues that affect British Columbians, including the economy, poverty, inequality, climate change, provincial budgets, taxes, public services, employment and much more. Contributors include staff and research associates from the B.C. Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). The views expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCPA. Visit the CCPA's Policy Note blog at www.PolicyNote.ca.

Canada's emissions deception

| August 9, 2012
Photo: Ian Britton/Flickr

The federal government released an updated Canada's Emission Trends 2012 report yesterday. In a remarkable shift in federal rhetoric just this past week, the Harperites now appear to be more sensitive to concerns about the Enbridge pipeline and climate change more generally. But appearances can be deceiving and there is good reason to believe the current charm offensive is just a recasting of business-as-usual in recognition of just how offside the government has been on climate file.

Here is Environment Minister Peter Kent in a speech delivered yesterday:

Canada is now halfway to its target of reducing total greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. This is the result of the Harper Government's realistic, sector-by-sector approach to greenhouse gas regulations that is reducing emissions, while continuing to create jobs and encouraging economic growth. Last year, we were one-quarter of the way to our goal. And now we're halfway there. This shows the significant progress we are making in meeting our Copenhagen commitment.

First of all, it is worth recalling that the Harper government abandoned the Kyoto Protocol and its target of emissions 6 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012 (which works out to a drop from 589 Mt CO2 equivalent in 1990 to 554 Mt in 2012). In its place they made a commitment in the 2009 Copenhagen Agreement to a lesser target of 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 (a drop from 740 Mt in 2005 to 607 Mt in 2020). Kent claims the government is halfway there, but the modeling in Canada's Emission Trends projects that in 2020 emissions will be 720 Mt. This is only 2.7 per cent below 2005 levels, nowhere close to a 17 per cent reduction.

So where does halfway come in? The report creates an alternative "do nothing" scenario that leads to surging emissions of 850 Mt in 2020, then subtracts estimates of federal and provincial actions taken to date, which gets us to 720 Mt. That is a lot of spin on the numbers, perhaps hoping few people will bother to read the actual report and just report the government's line.

But even the 720 Mt number is suspect for a variety of reasons. First, the economic downturn lowers the baseline, with 2010 emissions coming in lower than previously expected. Next, the feds have included land use changes in the calculations for the first time. The decline in forestry activity means more carbon will remain sequestered in Canada's forests, and this will lower emissions by 26 Mt. Take these out and the 2020 target jumps back to 745 Mt, slightly more than 2005 levels. Then report also arbitrarily lowers emissions from B.C.'s natural gas sector, relative to National Energy Board projections. And it assumes that proposed regulations yet to be ratified contribute to decreased transportation emissions. And that Saskatchewan implements carbon capture and storage for four new coal-fired power plants.

The other matter is to what extent the feds can take credit for any reductions in various sectors of the Canadian economy. Much of the heavy lifting appears to have been done at the provincial level, including B.C.'s carbon tax, Quebec's cap-and-trade regime and Ontario's phase-out of coal-fired electricity. In transportation, new vehicle regulations are touted but these just copy the new regulations established by the United States. The report makes repeated reference to new regulations being developed for the oil and gas sector, too, but these have been promised for a long time and no draft regulations have yet seen the light of day.

The report is not a complete write-off. It highlights clearly the emissions growth coming from Alberta, whose emissions will increase 48 Mt between 2010 and 2020, a rise of 20 per cent. B.C. is the other culprit, with an increase of 16 Mt between 2010 and 2020, a rise of 29 per cent. For B.C., the feds are effectively outing the provincial government for failing to comply with its legislated GHG reduction target of a one-third decrease in 2020 relative to 2007 levels. The B.C. government, by pursuing a massive expansion of natural gas for export as LNG (liquified natural gas) to Asia, is breaking its own law.

All other provinces and territories either stay level or show project decreases in emissions. Ontario, in particular, is expected to see emission reductions, primarily due to the phase-out of coal.

By industry sector, it is no surprise that oil and gas is driving emissions growth in Canada. Emissions are expected to surge by 50 Mt per year between 2010 and 2020, an increase of almost one-third. Within that sector, oil sands emissions more than double (and relative to 2005, more than triple). Put another way, Canada could easily meet its 2020 target and then some if it stopped being a peddler of fossil fuels to export markets. In fact, the GHG emissions associated with exports make the underlying situation much worse because the carbon content of the fuels combusted in other nations does not count in Canada's inventory. Amanda Card and I estimated Canada's exported GHG emissions to be 115 per cent of our own emissions from burning fossil fuels.

Smoke, meet mirror. The change in tone from Minister Kent is welcome, but when you look closely there is a credibility gap on the climate file at least as wide as Canada's emissions gap.

This article was first posted on Policy Note.

Photo: Ian Britton/Flickr

embedded_video