Canada hit the climate action accelerator in 2023, but some provinces are riding the brakes

Boldness and clarity of COP28 final agreement has profound implications for our country

Chris Severson-Baker at the Alberta Climate Summit

Chris Severson-Baker at the Alberta Climate Summit. Photo: Roberta Franchuk, Pembina Institute

We may look back at 2023 as the year that the world turned the corner on climate action. At the much-anticipated COP28 Climate Conference in Dubai, the final agreement (the “Global Stocktake”)—for the first time—called on all governments to: “Transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner, accelerating action in this critical decade, so as to achieve net zero by 2050 in keeping with the science.”

Those same 198 countries called for “tripling renewable energy capacity globally and doubling the global average annual rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030.”

The boldness and clarity of these demands are without precedent. And the earth itself, on every continent, and in every country, issues stark reminders of the need for swift action. "2023 is on track to being the warmest year on record— “around 1.4°C above pre-industrial average temperatures," said the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service's Deputy Director, Samantha Burgess in October.

During COP28, Canada released a 2023 progress report on the 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan showing that the country is projecting to reduce emissions 36% below 2005 levels by 2030 if all modelled measures are fully implemented. This is good but not enough. Canada has committed to reduce emissions by 40 to 45% below 2005 levels, but as the progress report rightly notes, “the division of powers between the national and subnational governments, provinces and territories are responsible for many of the regulations and policies needed to meet net zero.”

We cannot achieve our climate goals without collaboration and committed partnership across all levels of government. But as Canada accelerates, some provinces are applying the brakes. Throughout 2023, the Alberta and Saskatchewan governments have repeatedly opposed federal action on reducing emissions, without offering credible alternatives or concrete commitments of their own to reduce emissions.

Oil and gas emissions reductions

In December, the federal government announced a framework for a regulatory cap on emissions from the oil and gas sector—still the highest emitting sector in Canada. We applauded this responsible and realistic action. If implemented, an emissions cap will finally prompt oil and gas companies to divert record profits into major investments in decarbonization. The cap will need to decline steeply after 2030 in order to achieve net zero by 2050. Also in 2023, the federal government released its oil and gas sector methane regulations, which will keep the country at the forefront of capturing these low-cost and easy to implement emissions reductions.

Clean Electricity Regulations

Canada’s Clean Electricity Regulations are essential for developing clean energy grids, which are the foundation upon which to build a net-zero economy. All regions of Canada will benefit from an influx of global capital seeking to establish facilities that produce net zero-aligned products and energy. The “electrification of (almost) everything” is doable, affordable and reliable because Canada has an abundance of untapped renewable energy development potential as well as untapped opportunities to strengthen regional grids through increased interties between the provinces.

To demonstrate the feasibility of clean grids, we released a report —Zeroing In: Pathways to an affordable net-zero grid in Alberta—partnering with the University of Alberta to model several pathways through which Alberta could decarbonize its electricity grid in an affordable and reliable manner.

Provinces blocking progress

At the tail-end of a summer during which Canada had experienced severe wildfires and drought, the Alberta government imposed a seven-month surprise moratorium on approvals of renewable electricity projects above one megawatt. This was a major brake on progress, and it has put tens of billions of investment dollars into doubt. The province also voiced strong opposition to all draft federal regulations on energy, including the Clean Electricity Regulations, the oil and gas emissions cap, the federal methane regulations, and even the zero-emission vehicle mandate. Saskatchewan has also to date opposed all these federal initiatives too, with the exception of the ZEV mandate.

Pembina Institute pushes past the rhetoric

The Pembina Institute was at the centre of the most consequential climate policy shifts in the oil and gas, electricity, buildings and transportation sectors. The political rhetoric has at times been heated in 2023, but we know Canadians still welcome thoughtful and constructive contributions that move us beyond polarization to concrete action.

In October, we hosted the Alberta Climate Summit, which included interviews with both the Premier of Alberta and federal minister for Natural Resources and Energy. The debate was occasionally intense, yet it was also clear that industry leaders, Indigenous communities, all levels of government, academia and non-profits have a growing confidence in the practical solutions they are developing and implementing across the country, whether those solutions are renewable energy, battery storage, carbon dioxide removal, Indigenous energy leadership, or labour force planning (see, for example, our recently released Sustainable Jobs Blueprint, Part I and Part II, produced in partnership with the Canadian Labour Congress).

As I look ahead to 2024, it seems likely that many of the topics that dominated the conversation this year will continue to make the headlines. Canada is not immune to the startling trends that we're seeing worldwide. In September of this year, the International Energy Agency published its Net Zero Roadmap Update, reminding us that "the speed of the roll-out of key clean energy technologies means that the IEA now projects that demand for coal, oil and natural gas will all peak this decade...”

This is where the world needs to go. In 2023, Canada started to catch up to this reality, but we're still driving with the brakes on. In 2024, I hope all levels of government will cooperate on the challenges ahead.

Other highlights

The Pembina Institute had a highly productive year, drafting numerous impactful policy reports that offer pathways forward on the energy transition at the national and provincial levels, as well as in the territories and in remote communities. Here are just a few of the reports we released to help drive the conversation forward: