The trouble with 2030

Blog - Jan. 10, 2014 - By P.J. Partington

Think Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions look bad today? Unfortunately 2030 doesn’t look any rosier.

It’s hardly news that Canada has a major emissions challenge. In October, Environment Canada published projections estimating that current policies will see Canada miss the Harper government’s 2020 emissions target by 122 million tonnes. That’s more than the emissions from the entire passenger transportation sector.

Now a new report offers us a glimpse of where Canada’s emissions are headed after 2020, adding projections for the next decade. This allows us to assess Canada’s approach to curbing climate change over the longer term. This is useful, since many climate policies phase in over time, as well as timely: the international community is currently negotiating a new global climate agreement for the post-2020 period. They’re hoping to finalize a deal in Paris in 2015.

Graph of performance relative to emissions targets

Canada’s historic and projected GHG emissions compared to commitments. Historic emissions data from Environment Canada, National Inventory Report 2013. Projected emissions data from Government of Canada, Canada’s Sixth National Report on Climate Change. Environment Canada is projecting a 28 Mt credit from the land-use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector in 2020. Potential LULUCF credits or debits are not estimated for other years.

Not only is Canada on track to miss our 2020 target with current policies, but emissions will actually grow right through to 2030. I’ll come back to why that is problematic in a minute, but first let’s look at what is driving the continued growth in Canada’s emissions.

Here is the breakdown of the emission projections by economic sector:

Graph of GHG emission trends

Projected GHG emissions by sector. Data from Government of Canada, Sixth National Report on Climate Change. EITE refers to emissions-intensity, trade-exposed industry. Note: Environment Canada projects that electricity emissions will remain essentially level between 2020 and 2029, before falling in 2030. This is not reflected here as the full series of annual data is not included in NC6.

As you’ll notice, electricity emissions are falling significantly. Up to 2015, this is almost entirely a result of Ontario’s phase-out of coal power. The federal coal regulations provide a small reduction in 2020, and another larger one in 2030. Other provincial action adds to the progress as well.

Oilsands rising

Surging emissions from the oilsands stand out as a stark counterpoint to electricity’s progress. Greenhouse gas pollution from the oilsands sector is projected to quadruple between 2005 and 2030, reaching 137 Mt — that’s more than the combined emissions of every province east of Ontario.

Without strong oil and gas regulations driving improved environmental performance, as well as a moderation of the pace and scale of oilsands development, it’s hard to see how this picture will change meaningfully. Right now, Canada lacks the kind of stringent emission rules that drive innovation and ensure that projects use the very best technologies. As a result, we risk locking the sector and the country into the high-carbon trajectory detailed in this report.

Yet the prime minister has recently suggested that these regulations have been put on hold yet again, perhaps for another few years.

This is bad news not just for Canada’s emissions performance, but also for the oil and gas sector. For decision makers in Washington, D.C., Brussels and elsewhere, the oilsands’ growing greenhouse gas pollution has pushed the sector into the spotlight. This, in turn, creates challenges for the industry’s access to markets. Customers are asking tough questions about the oilsands’ environmental footprint. The lack of any rules from Ottawa to curb emissions does nothing to help answer those questions.

Without strong oil and gas regulations, it will be virtually impossible to achieve our 2020 commitment — a target we share with the United States. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sees sees these latest UN reports as “a critical means of ensuring that the parties [to the Copenhagen Accord] are implementing the pledges they made.” What will he see when he looks at Canada’s report?

Graph of projected emissions

Projected GHG trends in Canada and the U.S. under current policies. Data from Government of Canada, Sixth National Report on Climate Change and U.S. Department of State, 2014 U.S. Climate Action Report. Note: excludes emissions from land-use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF). Canada is projecting a 28 Mt credit from the LULUCF sector in 2020. Accounting for this credit brings Canada’s emissions to 0.4 per cent below the 2005 level. Dashed blue lines illustrate the range of projected U.S. emissions in 2020 based on the implementation of the president’s Climate Action Plan.

Good global neighbours

Of course, this long-term rise in Canada’s emissions is troubling from a broader perspective as well. The global transition to clean energy transition needs to be well underway by 2030 if we want to avoid catastrophic climate change. Canada must play its part in that transition.

As countries negotiate a post-2020 global climate agreement, industrialized countries like Canada will be expected to take the lead with deeper reductions. We’ll be expected to commit to more ambitious targets than our 2020 goal.

By 2030, global emissions need to be on the way down. In the International Energy Agency's climate action scenario, for example, worldwide energy-related CO2 emissions fall 21 per cent below 2011 levels by 2030. For OECD countries, emissions fall 41 per cent below 2011 levels. Even China’s emissions will be shrinking by then.

In these circumstances, how would other countries feel about Canada’s emissions growing by 16 per cent?

Reports like these are a helpful reminder that fighting climate change is about more than hitting shorter-term targets. Important as it may be, our 2020 target is only the first step in the long-term transition to a low-carbon future. We should be asking whether the decisions we make today — and the policies that guide them — are setting us up to succeed.

In Canada, the answer is clear: we’re not even close yet.

P.J. Partington
P.J. Partington

P.J. Partington was a senior analyst with the Pembina Institute's federal policy group until 2015.


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