Some advice I received 40 years ago, when I graduated and started my first full-time job, seems to have been fully embraced by our prime minister on climate change targets. I was told by a guy, training me to take over responsibility for an area, that if I was going to blow my travel budget I might as well go over big, because once you cross that budget line it doesn’t matter how much you cross it by. In fact, missing it by a lot means the target was unrealistic, and the miss is forgiven more easily.
The PM is missing his climate targets by so much it seems he feels he might as well make the target bigger and miss by more. A big miss or a bigger miss is neither here nor there in Ottawa and among large corporations. But in the real world, a big miss on climate targets matters.
Our prime minister promised a new climate action order back in 2015 when he was elected to govern this country. The change in emissions since then, according to the latest data (2019) submitted to the UN this month, has actually been a one per cent increase. In its UN report, the Trudeau government calls that a “continuous improvement” approach to climate change action. Most of us would call that standing still.
It’s pretty well standing still, as well, when you look at the long-term results versus the 2005 benchmark year. In 14 years, we show a reduction of 1.2 per cent, or 0.1 per cent per year. The Canadian government resorts to the usual line: “imagine how bad it would be if we weren’t doing so much.” Those who care would rather imagine how good it could be if they actually were doing what they said they were going to in terms of hitting a target.
One last piece of context. The Kyoto benchmark year was 1990. Today, we stand 21 per cent above that year. In Jeffrey Simpson’s 2007 book Hot Air, he describes how Jean Chrétien himself bumped up our 1997 Kyoto commitment target to a completely unrealistic six per cent reduction by 2012, without any plan in place to meet it. Unfortunately, our current prime minister is playing the same game, and is now doubling down on an even bigger unreachable target.
And here’s why: his new buddy, U.S. President Joe Biden, just described Trudeau on the COVID file as "a fella who is working really hard to take care of his country.” Biden is making a big splash on climate change and appears to be taking serious action. Trudeau wants Uncle Joe to think of him as that “hard-working fella” on climate change, too.
We have a totally different context than the U.S., not the least of which is that they have already achieved a 13 per cent reduction since 2005, while we’ve only managed to eke out 1.2 per cent. And that different context is why they can actually meet a 50 per cent reduction and we’ll be lucky to make 15 per cent, never mind 30 per cent or the bigger targets Trudeau is now talking about.
Our consumption of energy is very different than the U.S., and our ability to reduce without huge changes in our economy is more difficult. In Canada, 82 per cent of electricity comes from non-emitting sources (hydro, nuclear, renewables), and in the U.S., non-emitting electricity stands at 40 per cent. While it is great to have so much green electricity, it doesn’t provide much of a lever for us for further reductions. Biden, on the other hand, can focus on shifting electricity generation from burning huge amounts of coal and natural gas to electricity generation from renewables.
Another big difference between us is the emissions from passenger cars. In the U.S., those vehicle emissions comprise 12 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, whereas in Canada, the number is only five per cent. That’s right, if every car in Canada was converted to electric, we would only see a total reduction of five per cent. The combination of passenger cars, SUVs, minivans and light pickups make up 12 per cent of our emissions in Canada and 16 per cent in the U.S. The list goes on. We aren’t the U.S., and implementing their solutions doesn’t get us as far. Even big steps like requiring every passenger car in Canada to be an electric vehicle.
If we converted every gasoline-powered car and light truck, made the rest of our electricity non-emitting (which means no natural gas, either), made every commercial and residential building in Canada non-emitting (again, no natural gas) and managed to not grow any other emissions as the economy and population grew, we would see a total reduction of just over 30 per cent. Those are huge changes, and while some of that is going to happen, it won’t be 100 per cent done in the next nine years in Canada. No way. Even with those massive changes, we would just meet our Paris COP21 commitment, never mind Trudeau’s wannabe “fella who is working really hard” target.
So what do we do? To start with, we need a clear vision of what we look like at the end point in 2030 and the precise steps to make that happen. We need our government to detail the end state for all sectors of the economy, from how many EVs there will be by 2030, along with the infrastructure to support them, to how we get off the remaining fossil fuels we are burning to generate electricity. We also need to be honest about what that means for our oil and gas industry, an industry that represents more than 25 per cent of our emissions. That last point is, of course, the problem for Trudeau: we are still pretending as the U.S. decarbonizes and we do, too, that there will be no impact on the oil and gas industry in Canada.
A big miss or a bigger miss is neither here nor there in Ottawa and among large corporations, writes Ross Belot. But in the real world, a big miss on climate targets matters. #LeadersClimateSummit #cdnpoli
We just saw the pretending in the recent federal budget when they dragged out the dead horse of carbon capture and storage as a saviour of the industry. Spending hundreds of millions or billions to maintain an industry that must be wound down if the world is to survive is not a good use of our money. Mr. Prime Minister, we need a plan with an end state clearly articulated in detail and steps to get there. That determines what our emissions will most likely be, not a number thrown out with no basis. Let’s stop playing games — this is serious.
Ross Belot is a retired senior manager with one of Canada’s largest energy companies. He is now an environmental poet.