One more time, with feeling

Why we’re not halfway there yet on climate

April 25, 2013
Blog Entry

It seems that barely a week goes by without a federal cabinet minister saying we’re “halfway” to meeting our 2020 greenhouse gas target — and this week was no exception.

I’ll admit it right now: nothing the government says about its climate change track record makes me crazier than that particular claim.

So here’s the full-length explanation of why the government says we’re halfway, what the line really means, and what Jon Bon Jovi has to do with Canada’s emission projections.

Target 2020

First things first: the target in question is the national emission reduction goal that Canada adopted early in 2010, when the government decided to take the U.S. target as its own. The goal is to reduce Canada’s emissions to 17 per cent below the 2005 level by 2020.

And to cut to the chase, the government’s projections show that we’re on track to miss that goal by a wide margin, with emissions growing from today’s levels so that we end up 2 per cent (rather than 17 per cent) below the 2005 level.

“Halfway,” but by when?

It’s the 2020 timeline that makes the government’s line sound reassuring. If we’re “halfway” there now, and it’s only 2013, then getting to the goal in the next seven should be a piece of cake. Right?

But that’s not what the government’s emission projections show. Even if you accept the logic of the “halfway” analysis, which we’ll explain below, Environment Canada’s most recent estimates project that we’ll be “halfway there” in 2020.

To put in more familiar terms: think of a student learning a new subject in school, starting in September and working towards a final exam in June. If that student was “halfway” to understanding all the material by, say, January, she’d be in good shape. But the projections show that she’s actually going to know half the information by the time the final exam rolls around in June.

When I was in high school, knowing only half the information on final exam day got you a D minus, if not an F. It was definitely not something I would have highlighted every time I talked to my peers. 

What the numbers say

So where does the “halfway” estimate actually come from?

The basis for the assessment is a report called Canada’s Emissions Trends, an invaluable source of information about where greenhouse gas pollution in Canada is heading. The most recent edition, which came out in the summer of 2012, gives us the three key numbers we need to understand what’s going on.

Graph depicting scenario outcomes for reaching Canada's 2020 greenhouse gas emissions target.

The first, which corresponds to the top red line in the graph, is Environment Canada’s 2011 projection of what Canada’s 2020 emissions would be if governments did absolutely nothing to reduce emissions. Based on economic trends, population growth, the makeup of Canada’s industrial base and other factors, they estimate that emissions would reach 850 million tonnes in 2020.

Of course, that’s not reality — federal and provincial governments in Canada have put some policies in place to reduce Canada’s emissions. Once the effects of those policies are factored in, the projection drops to 720 million tonnes, which is the purple line on the graph. That’s Environment Canada’s current best guess of where Canada’s emissions will actually be in 2020.

And to repeat, it includes all the federal policies the government has announced to date and all major provincial policy initiatives: Ontario’s coal phase out, B.C.’s carbon tax, and so on.

It also includes a projected reduction of 25 million tonnes from a category called “Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry.” Environment Canada included this estimate for the first time in 2012, and states that it is “preliminary in nature and will change.”

The third number on the graph is perhaps the most important one of all: our 2020 target, which is 607 million tonnes. It’s the short yellow line at the bottom of the graph.

So the idea that we’re “halfway there” comes from comparing the effects of all the policies governments have put in place so far with the hypothetical “no government action” case.

You can ask questions about the assumptions behind the “no government action” projection (and modellers do that all the time) — but even if you accept that it’s a good estimate, it’s not the number that matters most.

The real story is that we are well above the target level today: Canada’s emissions reached 702 million tonnes in 2011, the most recent year for which we have data available. And if current trends continue, we will be even farther from our target in 2020. Environment Canada’s projections show a 113 million tonne gap between where we are headed in 2020 and where we need to be.

The size of the gap

How big is 113 million tonnes?

It’s more than the current emissions of the provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick combined, which totalled 111 million tonnes in 2011. It’s also more than the total emissions from Canada’s electricity sector (90 million tonnes in 2011) or from all passenger transportation in Canada — from cars and SUVs to planes and trains — which reached 96 million tonnes in 2011.

Closing a gap that big is going to take a huge amount of work. It will require much stronger policies than the government has put into place, particularly in sectors that remain unregulated thus far, such as Canada’s growing oil and gas sector.

Rather than celebrating the “halfway” projection, it would be incredibly refreshing to hear ministers admit that there’s a lot left to do and that they’re going to have to work much harder.

Halfway decent

I haven’t seen that kind of speech yet from a Harper government minister. But it’s worth noting that some “halfway there” references are better than others.

Making Canada’s national statement at the UN climate talks in Doha last December, Environment Minister Peter Kent put it this way: “Canada is halfway to achieving our national effort to meet our Copenhagen target. The combined efforts to date of federal, provincial and territorial governments, of consumers and of businesses will generate half the greenhouse gas reduction required to meet Canada’s greenhouse gas target by 2020.”

Kent’s words provide enough context to allow listeners to understand that the timeline for achieving the “halfway” point is 2020. Unfortunately, more recent statements from Kent and from Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver leave out that crucial information.

Livin’ on a Prayer

For example, Minister Oliver put it this way in a recent press release: “Canada is aligned with the U.S. in reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 — and estimates show we are halfway there.” And Peter Kent made this assertion in a speech in Washington this month: “it is estimated that we are already halfway there in our national effort to meet Canada's target.”

I suspect that’s not the last time we’ll hear a “halfway” reference that leaves out the crucial details needed to make it an accurate statement.

So the next time you hear someone in the Harper government talk about Canada’s impressive progress towards the 2020 target, remember the immortal words of Jon Bon Jovi.

Halfway there? More like livin’ on a prayer.