Trust us? Canada's climate credibility challenge

August 8, 2013
Blog Entry

Canada doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to fighting climate change, to put it gently. We are the world’s tenth-largest carbon polluter in absolute terms. And when it comes to changing this picture our national government has a history of abandoned plans, missed targets and cavalier inaction.

That leaves Canada with a credibility problem. As U.S. President Barack Obama implements his new climate plan and considers the proposed Keystone XL pipeline's emissions, Ottawa hopes to convince him that we're suddenly serious about fighting climate change. Our record is plain to see, and so far it plainly shows the opposite.

Here are a few of the hurdles Canada will have to clear in order to convince the U.S. that this time we mean it:

We’ve said it all before

U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Canada has promised action many times, most recently with the Turning the Corner plan introduced in 2007 and updated the following year. The plan would have required reductions in emissions intensity across heavy industry, setting Canada on a course for meeting its climate commitments. The plan was expected to set an effective price on carbon reaching $65 per tonne before the end of this decade. It was also expected to slash projected emissions from the oilsands sector by 55 per cent.  

This wasn’t some back-of-the-napkin concept, but rather a full-scale plan aggressively marketed in Canada and touted at international meetings. The prime minister gave a major foreign speech on it.

Ultimately, the plan was quietly dumped. The Harper government has to make a convincing case that any new announcement won’t share the same fate.

Slow process, slower progress

After abandoning Turning the Corner, Canada eventually decided to set emissions standards for each industry on a sector-by-sector basis. So far, the only industrial sector for which the government has finalized regulations — or even proposed them — is coal power. And coal’s experience is a cautionary tale.

Following their initial announcement in June 2010, the coal regulations were progressively weakened. By the time they were finalized in September 2012, more than two years later, their short-term impact had been cut in half. Over their first thirty years, they will reduce total emissions a third less than originally proposed. The regulations will not be fully implemented until 2062.

If Canada’s pending oil and gas regulations are to be taken seriously, they will need clear timelines for implementation. The government has already been promising action in this sector for six years, and the latest closed-door talks have been underway since fall 2011, dragging past many deadlines. The government must also be clear that its proposal is the foundation on which to build up a strong regulation – not the starting gun for industry lobbyists racing to dilute it.

We’re on track for another broken commitment

The result of these abandoned plans and missing regulations is that Canada’s emissions continue to head in the wrong direction. According to government projections, we are on course to miss our international commitment by more than the combined carbon pollution of every passenger car, truck, bus, train and plane in Canada.

Chart showing Canada's greenhouse gas emissions and targets

Canada’s historic greenhouse gas emissions and projected 2020 emissions. Data source: Environment Canada, National Inventory Report 1990-2011 and Canada’s Emissions Trends 2012. (Note that Environment Canada anticipates a credit of 25 Mt in 2020 from new international accounting rules for the land-use, land-use change and forestry sector.)

The U.S., which has the same target as Canada, is getting on track to hit it. If Obama’s new coal rules are ambitious enough, the U.S. can meet its 2020 target. This is a safe bet, since analysis shows a well-designed standard could produce an annual net benefit above $25 billion while raising electricity rates by only 1.3 per cent. If the U.S. is working to meet its commitments, how will they feel about their northern neighbour shirking its responsibility?

Without a credible plan outlining how Canada will meet its climate commitments, it’s safe to assume we won’t. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry — who has a deep passion for international cooperation on climate action, along with a new mandate to pursue it — will certainly notice.

Deeds, not words

All of these shortcomings, along with the government’s attacks on environmentalists, climate scientists and carbon pricing, have left an impression. It’s now conventional wisdom that, as one columnist recently wrote, “Stephen Harper will never convince anyone that his government is serious about preventing climate change.”

Yet Harper is trying to convince Obama of precisely that in order to get Keystone XL approved. Simply saying Canada is serious about fighting climate change won’t be enough. Our record shows otherwise. This time, it’s going to take real change.