At the UN climate conference, COP27, Canada had a late flip-flop on the need to phase out fossil fuels. But it’s unclear where Canada stands now.
For the first two weeks of the conference, Canada’s negotiators were aligned with the fossil fuel industry, adamant that there should be no mention of phasing out or even phasing down fossil fuel production in order to limit catastrophic climate change. This put Canada at odds with credible climate science, as well as the European Union, the U.S., India, and many other nations, and in line with Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran.
But then, as negotiations dragged on past the scheduled end of the conference, Canada’s negotiators told the media they were open to language calling for phasing down unabated fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, the final text published on Sunday did not include mention of phasing out oil and gas, and only called for phasing out coal, the same as in last year’s COP26 text.
And what did Canada have to say about this? Later that day, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault released a statement seeming to walk back the position his negotiators took just a day before.
“During a global energy crisis, we are more committed than ever to support the global transition to cleaner, renewable forms of energy, by transitioning away from our dependency on fossil fuels,” the statement reads.
This is not a clear statement and does not make reference to needing to phase out or even phase down fossil fuel production and use.
So we must ask: Where does Canada actually stand?
The cover text of any COP agreement isn’t legally binding. But it is important. It reflects where countries are in terms of recognizing how dire the climate crisis is and its root causes. And as such, it’s important for it, and the countries that sign it, to name the so-called elephant in the room — oil and gas — the main cause of climate change. You’ve got to name it to tame it, as they say.
And that’s the crux of where we’re stuck here in Canada, at this uneasy impasse. The federal government has a climate change plan and is moving on a number of policies that are part of that plan, including banning the sale of gas- and diesel-powered cars by 2035, regulating 100 per cent clean power (also by 2035), and pricing emissions across the economy.
It was important for countries at #COP27 to name the so-called elephant in the room — oil and gas — the main cause of climate change, write Keith Brooks & Dave Gray-Donald @dgrdon @envirodefence #COP27 #PhaseOutFossils #cdnpoli #GlobalWarming
And Canada is in the process of regulating emissions from the oil and gas industry, both through limiting the industry’s methane emissions and by putting a cap on emissions from producing oil and gas, and reducing those emissions over time by lowering that cap on a regular basis.
But the government stops short of calling for the phaseout of fossil fuels. It stops short, in fact, of even admitting that phasing out oil and gas is essential if Canada really wants to do its share to limit global heating. And this is a problem.
This failure allows our leaders to indulge in a collective delusion: that we can grow the production of fossil fuels while avoiding the emissions from them. It compels them to talk endlessly about carbon capture and storage and hydrogen, and other unproven workarounds promising the impossible: decarbonizing the oil and gas sector.
It leads Canada to invite oilsands companies to join Canada’s delegation at COP27 and even host an event where these companies get to pretend that they get it. They know they’re part of the problem, they tell us, and they supposedly have a solution.
But it is a dangerous lie, tempting as it may be. The technologies they are pushing are so expensive, the oil companies won’t implement them without massive taxpayer subsidies, and none of them are proven at scale.
Carbon capture (CCUS) projects regularly fail to capture even half the emissions from a pollution source. Shell’s Quest facility near Edmonton claims to have a capture rate of 80 per cent, but when the emissions to run this technology are factored in, the net capture rate falls well below 50 per cent. Plus, the vast majority of the emissions from oil and gas are released when the products are burned — and CCUS does nothing about that.
All told, these schemes will not get us anywhere close to our goal of net-zero.
The federal government’s new line, it seems, is that natural resources are provincial jurisdiction, and if the federal government oversteps, it’ll be challenged in court.
The Constitution does limit federal powers, but it doesn’t prevent Canadian leaders from admitting oil and gas production needs to decline. Even if they do not have the power to directly regulate oil and gas production, nothing is stopping them from simply saying that production itself is an issue. And it certainly wouldn’t block Canada from agreeing to a non-binding text stating what must be done: we need to get off oil and gas.
Canada and the world have come a long way on climate. But we will never get to where we need to be if we can’t even admit what must be done, which is phasing out coal, oil and gas.
Keith Brooks, Environmental Defence programs director, was born in the 'burbs just outside Toronto, but his passion for the environment was born in a canoe on the rivers and lakes of northern Ontario. Keith pursued a bachelor of environmental sciences from the University of Guelph and then worked for a number of years in the environmental consulting field, before enrolling at York University where he earned a master of environmental studies.
Dave Gray-Donald, Environmental Defence oil and gas program manager, has worked at the intersections of environment, media, and movements for social justice for over a decade. He followed pipeline battles like Line 9 and Energy East in Quebec and Ontario as a journalist before moving to Treaty Four Territory in Regina to work as the publisher of Briarpatch Magazine.