Canada’s climate targets in 2012

Today’s report from Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development (CESD) has attracted a fair bit of media attention. On climate change, the report argues that Canada lacks a credible plan for meeting our 2020 target of cutting greenhouse gas pollution to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. This target replaced Canada’s much more ambitious but now abandoned Kyoto Protocol target of cutting to 6% below 1990 pollution levels by 2012.

A few points in response:

1) None of Canada’s climate targets have ever been tough enough to be compatible with a fair global pathway that avoids more than 2°C of warming. In order to stay below the level at which climate change is generally considered ‘dangerous’, Canada and other countries must do much more than has been proposed so far.

2) As the CESD points out, Canada’s existing targets are more notional than realistic. In order to meet them, much more on-the-ground action needs to occur.

3) All of these pollution figures ignore Canada’s huge hydrocarbon exports. The question of how to assign responsibility for a litre of oil or a tonne of coal mined in Canada and sold overseas isn’t straightforward. At the same time, the planet doesn’t care whether the fuel is burned in Canada or in China. Either way, it contributes the same amount of warming to the climate system. If we are to address climate change, exports also need to be phased out.

Once we take into consideration the amount of fossil fuel we are exporting, Canada’s climate change record looks even worse then we only look at our failure to reach our past targets. It can be argued that fuel burnt in China or the United States isn’t our responsibility. This argument isn’t entirely convincing. For one thing, Canada regularly uses the inaction of China and the United States as an excuse to do less about climate change. That position doesn’t seem very credible if we are simultaneously supplying them with large quantities of fossil fuel.

Dealing with climate change requires transitioning the world away from fossil fuel dependence. Continued fossil fuel production is very costly, and delays those efforts. People are going to continue to make excessive use of coal, oil, and gas for as long as they are cheap and their use is unrestricted. At this stage in human history, it makes an enormous amount of sense to simply leave these fuels in the ground. In so doing, we sacrifice the short-term economic value that selling the fuels could provide. At the same time, we gain the opportunity to re-orient our economy and energy system in a way that is compatible with the coming post-carbon world.

Critically, leaving the fuels underground also lessens the harm we are imposing on other people around the world and on future generations. Because of the serious impacts of climate change, fossil fuel production is a fair bit like stealing copper wiring from the houses of other people. It seems profitable to the people doing the stealing, since they didn’t pay to have the wires installed in the first place and they won’t pay to have them replaced. From the perspective of society as a whole, however, copper wire thieves are causing harm while producing no net benefit. Rather than exploiting the economic opportunities that exist because the world hasn’t yet become serious about climate change mitigation, Canada should be investing its efforts and resources into making an effective and efficient transition to a zero-carbon economy with no fossil fuel exports. Firms like Suncor and Syncrude are much like those copper wire thieves. They are profiting handsomely today, but only doing so by imposing frightening costs on all members of future generations. Unfortunately, today’s oil companies are rich and politically influential, whereas future generations are defenceless and silent.

The targets that really matter are global: how much the planet will warm; how much sea ice will melt; how affected global agriculture will be; and how many more people will suffer from extreme weather or shortages of food and water. Canada’s current approach is short-sighted and selfish, to a degree that isn’t entirely obvious if you only look at our domestic pollution reduction targets and our (inadequate) efforts to reach them.

Canada is choosing a future for the world that is characterized by extreme climate instability, with all the human suffering that goes along with that. If we want to choose a different future, we need to accept that the era of fossil fuels is coming to an end, and it is time for us to make a devoted effort to rapidly phasing them out of our energy system.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

6 thoughts on “Canada’s climate targets in 2012”

  1. When one is paid to study the effects of climate change, one does not deny the existence of climate change.
    Almost all research was into effects (not causes), of an assumed to be real crisis that couldn’t be proven or disproved. A consultant’s wet dream come true!
    Climate scientists have done to science what abusive priests did for the Catholic Church.

  2. Canada Set to Miss Modest Emissions Goals

    Canada is acting too slowly to combat climate change and has little chance of achieving its modest 2020 target for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, Parliament’s environmental watchdog said on Tuesday.

    OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada is acting too slowly to combat climate change and has little chance of achieving its modest 2020 target for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, Parliament’s environmental watchdog said on Tuesday.

    The report by Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan is awkward for the right-of-center Conservative government, which green activists say is more interested in industrial development than in protecting the environment.

    The government, which pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change last year, is promising to reduce emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.

    Vaughan said the government is not moving quickly enough to introduce the necessary regulations and noted that an official forecast in July 2011 showed emissions in 2020 would in fact be 7.4 percent above the 2005 level.

    “Although the federal government has begun to lower greenhouse gas emissions, right now the reductions are not happening fast enough to meet the 2020 target,” he wrote.


    The federal government is set to announce that it is almost half way to meeting its emissions-reductions target — a significant leap in progress over the past year.

    When Environment Canada releases its next update on greenhouse gas emissions trends in August, the report will show that Canada is almost 50 per cent of the way towards meeting its 2020 goal.

    That’s a big jump from the 25 per cent announced a year ago.

    Multiple sources say the surge is a result of provincial measures, more efficient technology and a recent international agreement that credits Canada for its large forests.

    “We’re trending in the right direction,” said one source on condition of anonymity.

    The report is expected to be made public within a couple of weeks.

    Specifically, it will show that existing government measures will make greenhouse gas emissions fall to 720 megatonnes in 2020, instead of the 850 megatonnes that would have resulted from no government action.

    The 720-megatonne estimate is 65 megatonnes lower than the total at this time last year.

    It means that if nothing else changed on the policy front, the actions Canadians and their governments are taking now would reduce emissions by almost half the amount required under Canada’s international commitments.

    Ottawa has pledged under the Copenhagen accord that by 2020, Canada will have cut its emissions to 607 megatonnes, or 17 per cent below 2005 levels.

    Part of the progress is math. In the past, Canada didn’t count land-use change or forestry in its calculations, but now, after international negotiations, it can. That accounts for 25 megatonnes of the surge, sources said.

    But the rest of the advance is because newly constructed buildings and new vehicles are far more efficient than they were in the past, and because provincial policies for reducing emissions are proving to be effective.

    Quebec is implementing a cap-and-trade system to encourage a low-carbon economy, while British Columbia has implemented a carbon tax.

    Plus, some federal regulations may be beginning to have an effect, sources said.

    In April, Environment Canada said emissions in 2010 were no longer increasing even though the economy had resumed growth after the recession. The upcoming emissions trends report, which is subject to stringent peer review, assumes that the “decoupling” persists, sources said.

    A spokesman for Environment Minister Peter Kent would not comment on the emissions trends report.

    “We’re in the process of crunching our numbers and look forward to releasing this year’s trend report in the coming weeks,” said director of communications Rob Taylor.

    Still, it’s an open question whether federal and provincial policies will be introduced and implemented fast enough to finish the job in time.

    “If we steadfastly stick to the sector-by-sector approach… it’s just not going to be possible. There’s too much time lag to develop them, and they don’t do enough,” said Matt Horne, acting director of the climate change program at the Pembina Institute, an environment think tank.

    Ottawa has rejected both a cap-and-trade system and a carbon tax, and has instead opted to impose rules on key industrial sectors that are major emitters of carbon.

    But only two sets of rules have been introduced so far.

    New coal regulations are in the final stages of being ready, and oil and gas will likely be next, in early 2013. But Horne fears the federal government is in the midst of weakening its plans for coal regulations. And Ottawa faces intense pressure from the oil patch to go easy in that sector too.

    Numerous experts, as well as the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, and the federal environment auditor, have all warned that Ottawa won’t come close to reaching its target if it relies solely on those regulations.

    That’s because they are taking a long time to develop, and an even longer time to actually affect the way industries carries out their business.

    In the meantime, companies are starting up new ventures under the existing regime, and locking in high carbon emissions — keeping levels high for decades to come.

    “Despite making progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Canada is not on track to achieve the federal government’s 2020 reduction target of 17% below 2005 levels,” the round table said June in its last major report before shutting its doors due to government funding cuts.

    “Canada will not achieve its 2020 GHG emission reductions target unless significant new, additional measures are taken. More will have to be done. No other conclusion is possible.”

    Putting a price on carbon and investing heavily in hydro-electric power would be key ways to meeting the target, the advisory body has suggested.

    “It would be tough to meet them (the target) regardless. There’s not much time left,” said Horne. “I’m not sure we can get all the way there.”

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