New government documents show Canada on track for failure on climate change

Blog - Feb. 1, 2011 - By Clare Demerse

I watched one of Peter Kent's very first interviews as Environment Minister — on CBC's Power and Politics back in early January — with a few of my colleagues.

Comparing notes afterwards, we were all puzzled by a comment he made about Canada's national greenhouse gas emission target, which is to cut emissions to 17 per cent below the 2005 level in 2020. Based on his initial briefings from Environment Canada, Minister Kent said, he had some good news: "we've already achieved almost a quarter of that 17 per cent reduction."

To us, it sounded like he was saying that Canada's emissions have gone down significantly since 2005. We'd love to see that, but we knew that isn't what the data shows. Instead, between 2005 and 2008 (the most recent publicly available data), Canada's emissions actually grew slightly from 731 million tonnes in 2005 to 734 million tonnes in 2008.

Source: Environment Canada's National Inventory Report: A Summary of Trends — 1990-2008.

In recent days, a speech from the minister, a new report and some Environment Canada data have solved the mystery for us. The bad news? Instead of showing reassuring progress towards the target, Minister Kent's statement actually means there's a massive gap between the government's current policies and its 2020 target.

Here's how Peter Kent put it in a speech he gave last Friday:

"Fact number one: this government — in partnership with provinces, territories and others — has already taken actions that will reduce Canada's 2020 greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions by 65 megatonnes and bring us about one-quarter of the way to meeting our target of 607 megatonnes."

If you read that closely, it's clear that the environment minister never meant that we were already a quarter of the way there. Instead, what he means is this: by 2020, government policies are projected to close a quarter of the gap between the target and Canada's projected 2020 emissions.

In other words, the government's current plans would see us miss our target by 75 per cent. So if the target was an exam, the government's plan is to study hard enough to get a 25 out of 100 by the time exam day rolls around. No matter where you went to school, that's a failing score.

We've known since the government announced its target that it didn't have the plans needed to meet it. But we didn't know exactly how big the gap really was until now.

A new report released by the National Round Table on the Environment last week added another piece to the puzzle. Based on Environment Canada data, their report breaks down the 2020 projection between provincial and federal climate policies, showing that the two orders of government are each responsible for about half of the emission reductions Canada would see in 2020.

Federal policies alone get us just 13 per cent of the way to the target. So to score that 25 per cent on his exam, Minister Kent has to count not just his own score but his roommate's as well.

Source: Parallel Paths — Canada-U.S. Climate Policy Choices (National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, p. 39).

Worse still, the new numbers show that planned government policies would actually leave Canada's emissions higher in 2020 than they are today. Canada's 2008 emissions were 734 million tonnes; the government's projections would put our 2020 emissions at 785 million tonnes, seven per cent greater than the current (2008) level. (To put that in context, scientific assessments tell us that global emissions need to peak before 2020 to have a chance of avoiding the dangerous threshold of 2 C of global warming — a goal the Government of Canada says it supports.)

Earlier this week, Environment Canada quietly posted a backgrounder that contains much of the same data. Figure 3 below, taken from that backgrounder, illustrates the size of the gap we're facing between Canada's target and its government policies. Environment Canada's backgrounder also confirms that, as Canada's economy recovers from the downturn, "GHG emissions are now expected to begin increasing again."

Figure 3, Scenarios of Canadian Emissions to 2020, in Mt (millions of tonnes) of CO2-equivalent. Source: “Canada’s Greenhouse Gas Target and Emission Projections.” Environment Canada, 2011.

The 2020 target we're talking about was chosen by this federal government, and Canada has promised the world it will meet the goal at more than one UN climate conference. In his speech last Friday, Peter Kent re-iterated that commitment, saying that his government "is determined to do our part for the planet" by meeting the 2020 target.

But Environment Canada's own data shows that, unless the provinces choose to take stronger actions, the federal government needs to implement climate policies more than six times stronger than what they've put on the table so far. (The emission-reduction effect of federal policies would have to be multiplied more than six-fold, from the current value of 32 million tonnes, to close the remaining 178 million tonne gap, because (32+178) ≈ 6.6×32.)

Unless the provinces choose to take stronger actions, the federal government needs to implement climate policies more than six times stronger than what they've put on the table so far.In his speech — and to his credit — Minister Kent acknowledged that "significant work remains" to reach the target. He said that the government "will continue to implement its plan by developing performance standards for all major emitters," without providing any further explanation of what he has in mind.

But to me, it didn't sound like the speech of a minister who knows he needs a major course correction.

Instead, Minister Kent said on Friday that he's already tired of "the constant, critical refrain that this Government has no environmental plan."

Trust me — we're tired of it too. And as soon as we see a federal climate plan that reaches the government's target, we'd be delighted to stop saying it.

Perhaps the saddest part of all is that, on climate change, we're actually moving backwards. In the 2008 "Turning the Corner" plan (introduced by a previous environment minister, John Baird), the government published a 45-page assessment of the projected effect of its policies. We raised questions about their analysis at the time, but for now, let's take it at face value.

In contrast to today's estimate of getting us a quarter of the way there, the combination of federal and provincial policies in 2008 were projected to close more than 80 per cent of the gap towards the 2020 target (which was somewhat stronger than today's 2020 target). From conversations with Environment Canada, we learned that federal policies were estimated to produce 230 million tonnes of emission cuts (relative to business as usual) by 2020. Today's projection is 32 million tonnes of reductions from federal policies — less than one-seventh of the total in the 2008 plan.

Source: "Turning the Corner — Detailed Emissions and Economic Modelling" by Environment Canada, 2008.

Last Friday, Peter Kent asserted that his government "is every bit as serious about the stewardship of Canada's environment" as it is about "ensuring our continued economic development."

But imagine for a moment how Stephen Harper's government would respond if their own data showed that the federal Economic Action Plan was on track to generate just 13 per cent of the benefits they projected. If it looked like they were going to fail that particular exam, I think we'd see the government pulling out all the stops to improve their score.

It's a different story on climate change. Based on today's policies, it looks more like the federal government is coasting towards an F.

Clare Demerse
Clare Demerse

Clare Demerse was the director of federal policy at the Pembina Institute until 2014.


Our perspectives to your inbox.

The Pembina Institute endeavors to maintain your privacy and protect the confidentiality of any personal information that you may give us. We do not sell, share, rent or otherwise disseminate personal information. Read our full privacy policy.