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Liberal government boasts lofty climate ambitions, but math needs to add up

Photo: flickr/Province of British Columbia

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will meet with premiers in Vancouver on Thursday to work on Canada's new climate plan. The challenges are great.

Trudeau and Catherine McKenna, the federal minister of environment and climate change, promised the moon at the Paris climate talks last December. Global temperatures had already risen 1 C above their pre-industrial level, yet McKenna was an early and vocal advocate in Paris of keeping the global temperature rise to 1.5 C.

Holding the world to a 2 C increase will be hard enough, but 1.5 C will require an energy and conservation revolution in Canada and abroad.

Is Ottawa prepared to boldly meet its promises? Or will the Conservatives charge that Trudeau's government has over-promised and under-delivered on this file stick?

With only 0.5 per cent of the world's population, Canada is responsible for 1.7 per cent of its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That's more than three times Canada's fair share. Yet in Paris, Canada committed only to the inadequate emissions reductions of the Harper government -- 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Can Canada even meet these promises given its ambitions to expand oil and gas production for export?

Peter Watson, chair of the National Energy Board, released a new "Energy Future" report for Canada in January. It projects strong growth in oil and gas production and domestic demand. The report assumes no cap on the tar sands and enough gas production for one large liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal as well as continuing land exports of natural gas.

According to the latest Environment Canada national inventory report on emissions submitted to the United Nations, the oil and gas sector was responsible for 25 per cent of Canadian emissions in 2013. With Alberta allowing tar sands emissions to rise to 100 million tons a year, over 40 per cent above 2013 levels, the oil and gas sector will account for 44 per cent of Canadian emissions by 2030 if Canada meets its Paris commitments. The rest of the economy would have to cut emissions by 47 per cent.

If B.C. Premier Christy Clark's ambitions of five LNG export terminals come on stream in that province, the oil and gas sector will rise to 52 per cent of Canada's emissions by 2030. The rest of the economy will have to reduce emissions by 54 per cent.

To make matters worse, Environment Canada projected that Canada's emissions will grow from 725 megatons per year in 2013 to 768 megatons per year in 2020, making cuts to 523 megatons per year by 2030 pledged in Paris even more difficult.

Emissions in 2013 were seven per cent above the Paris agreement trend line and in 2020 are projected to be 25 per cent above it.

Rather than continuing Stephen Harper's "energy superpower" rhetoric, Trudeau should recognize that Canada is a mature oil and gas exploration zone, that remaining resources are finite and come with environmental impacts, and that these resources will be needed by Canadians in future.

Why increase production now to sell finite resources off at bargain basement prices? The planned growth in the oil and gas sector will make the reductions needed to meet the Paris commitments virtually impossible if we are to preserve reasonable energy access for Canadians.

Emissions can be cut through carbon taxes to incentivize reduced use and infrastructure that provides alternatives to high carbon energy use. Capping tar sands output and natural gas exports is also necessary.

Canada's oil and gas industry is not going away. But the de facto Canadian energy strategy of liquidating non-renewable energy assets as fast as possible must be reconsidered. 

Trudeau and the premiers have tough choices on Thursday. Lofty ambitions are one thing, but the math has to add up.

David Hughes is an earth scientist who has studied the energy resources of Canada for more than four decades including 32 years with the Geological Survey of Canada. 

Gordon Laxer is author of After the Sands. Energy and Ecological Security for Canadians and founding director of the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta.

This article originally appeared in The Edmonton Journal and is reprinted with permission from the authors.

Photo: flickr/Province of British Columbia

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