Facing tough questions from Bloomberg News climate reporter Akshat Rathi this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was asked if Canada will meet its ambitious climate targets of 40 to 45 per cent emissions reductions (from 2005 levels) by 2030. The PM’s answer was an emphatic “Yes!”
The context for the question is Canada’s propensity to sign international agreements that contain targets and then miss the targets. This is not unique to climate change agreements, nor to Liberal governments, (and not unique to Canada, either). However, Canada does have a particularly poor track record in meeting climate targets, and Liberal governments in Canada tend to wear the “missing targets” badge more than others (especially during the Chrétien years when the Kyoto Agreement was signed with no plan and virtually no climate policies implemented during the 10 years of that government).
As a result, Canada stands out among G7 nations as the worst performer in terms of greenhouse gas reductions over the past several decades. Canada’s emissions are up by over 20 per cent, whereas the Europeans’ are collectively down by over 20 per cent, the United States has levelled off, and the U.K. has seen a remarkable 43 per cent decline. Nobody, it’s worth pointing out, has met their targets.
There are three very important factors to help understand Canada’s track record and the confidence of the PM going forward, a context which seemed unfamiliar to Rathi.
The first point was answered clearly by the PM when he said, "Any politician can put forward a target. But can you actually put forward a plan to do it?" In this, Trudeau was making reference both to past governments that had targets absent of plans and to the fact the Trudeau government has implemented more policies and produced a more coherent plan than any federal government before it.
For example, carbon pricing continues to be a federal climate policy cornerstone and Canada is one of the few countries in the world to successfully implement a national carbon tax. This is much more than a target or a plan, it is an established market-based policy seen by businesses, the oil and gas sector and economists as the most cost-effective way to curb carbon emissions.
Moreover, earlier this year, the federal government released its Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP), the first national climate plan with a clear focus on specific sectors of the economy. Both the carbon price and the ERP were hard-fought breakthroughs for the Liberal government and were opposed by the Conservative Party of Canada — which takes us to point number 2.
The context in Canada is NOT a widely supportive political environment calling for more action on climate change with the Liberals dragging their feet — quite the opposite. For every gain made by governments in Canada to address climate change, there are indefatigable calls from the Conservative Party and certain business interests to repeal those actions, slow them down or delay and distract. The Liberals are pushing ahead with persistence in a hostile environment characterized by vociferous critics who either have no climate plans at all, or at the other end of the spectrum, by activists calling for an immediate curtailment of oil production. The painful job of realpolitik climate sausage-making is not for those with weak stomachs or simple minds.
The third context point is twofold and helps to explain the two sides to Canada’s emissions and missed targets. The main culprits in Canada’s rising greenhouse gas emissions are oil and gas production and refining, and most of that oil and gas feeds American energy demand. Over 4.5 billion barrels per day of Canadian oil are sent to the U.S., and 99 per cent of U.S. natural gas imports are from Canada.
In this sense, the Americans have exported a large chunk of their emissions problem to Canada, since we are producing oil and gas to meet their voracious demand, and if not Canada, countries further afield would fill that demand. Similarly, the Europeans rely on oil and gas from Russia and the Middle East to fill the gap left by domestic coal reductions, moving their production emissions offshore as well.
Canada does have a particularly poor track record in meeting climate targets, and Liberal governments in Canada tend to wear the “missing targets” badge more than others, writes @brucelourie. #cdnpoli #NetZero #EnergyTransition #CleanEnergy
Large oil and gas export nations, therefore, have a much more difficult time meeting climate targets due to the emissions from export-related production. Add to that the fact those production emission increases in Canada are swapped for emission reductions in the U.S., given that most of the natural gas we export to America is used to power natural gas electricity plants that replaced coal-fired electricity. We get stuck with the greenhouse gas emissions increase, while Americans take credit for the emissions reductions from the cleaner-burning gas.
This explains the second part, where the “successful” climate countries are seeing their largest emissions reductions. Americans and Britons have achieved the majority of their emission reductions by reducing coal-fired electricity generation, which relied on domestic coal mining, and they replaced much of that electricity production with imported natural gas. The war in Ukraine has, of course, made energy security and the reliance on foreign fossil fuels mainstream ideas.
Coal is only a small part of Canada’s electricity mix and Ontario was perhaps the first jurisdiction in the world to achieve a complete phaseout of coal-fired electricity — leadership the rest of the world seems oblivious to. And with one of the cleanest (and cheapest) low-carbon electricity systems in the world, it makes it difficult to get the easy and inexpensive greenhouse gas wins seen in the coal-dominated regions of Europe and the U.S. This explains the other half of why Canada has a tough job — coal is a minor and dwindling part of our electricity supply, so the easy wins are harder to come by, thanks to Ontario’s early actions.
One can quibble over whether the current government has been moving at the pace of the problem, in that much of the Liberal “plan” has yet to be implemented (and on top of that, there is a lag time between policy implementation and emission reductions). Therefore, it will take time to see the direct effects of the Liberal climate plan, and this delay will continue to plague the government and provide easy fodder to critics of climate policy, as well as climate activists demanding more action.
The interview with the PM took place at an international gathering of climate experts, scientists, industry, and governments convened by the Canadian Climate Institute and the Net-Zero Advisory Body (NZAB), Canada’s two formal climate research and advisory organizations.
The event opened with international counterparts from Australia, the U.K., and France extolling the virtues of evidence-based research in support of robust and cost-effective climate policy. There is much to be shared with respect to best practices, not only in terms of successful climate policy development, but in navigating the complex (and similar) politics of extremism undermining sound democratic processes around the world.
Following the interview with the PM, Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson took the stage with NZAB co-chair Marie-Pierre Ippersiel, where they elaborated on the government’s climate plans and upcoming policies.
More stringent methane regulations, a zero-emissions vehicle mandate, a clean electricity standard, and an oil and gas sector emissions cap are among the policies in the works and expected to roll out of Ottawa over the weeks and months ahead. Along with carbon pricing, these policies, and the overarching ERP, will put Canada on par with any nation in terms of having the most comprehensive and stringent national climate policies on the planet.
Guilbeault hinted at a new federal mechanism to support carbon pricing called “contracts for differences.” These are contracts designed to provide price certainty to low-carbon energy producers to mitigate the risk of fluctuating energy prices or flip-flopping carbon price policies. Energy producers and financiers receive the long-term certainty they so often call for and this will accelerate renewable energy projects in Canada.
How quickly it all translates into emission reductions will depend in large part on the implementation details, as well as the willingness of provinces to support climate policies (versus threats to go to court), active participation of businesses, and an engaged public.
Doubling or tripling our electricity system to meet the growing demand from electrification of end-use energy is the one area Wilkinson admitted was an ongoing challenge, describing the efforts to build out an expanded modern electricity system this way: "It is going to need to be of a much more significant scale for us to move forward."
This will be a critical next piece of Canada’s plan, and one where provincial co-operation, Indigenous participation, and involvement of organized labour and business will be essential. Without it, many of the other elements of Canada’s climate plan will be difficult to achieve, putting those pesky targets at risk.
Bruce Lourie is president of the Ivey Foundation and co-author with Rick Smith of Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health.