You’re probably sick and tired of hearing about the carbon tax. Even more sickening — pit-of-the-stomach sickening — is the nauseating lack of context to all the political tumult.

I don’t mean Pierre Poilievre’s lying-by-omission on carbon rebates. That’s sleazy and deceitful and hardly new in politics. The cold void in the gut comes from watching Parliament and the press obsess over Poilievre’s non-confidence motion the very same week the World Meteorological Organization is “sounding the Red Alert to the world.”

“The state of the climate in 2023 gave ominous new significance to the phrase ‘off the charts,’” said the WMO as it officially certified last year as the hottest on record by a freakishly wide margin.

“A huge margin at the planetary scale,” wrote Gavin Schmidt this week in Nature. Schmidt is the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and has overseen the tracking project for temperature changes since 1880. “Climate models can’t explain 2023’s huge heat anomaly,” he writes. “We could be in uncharted territory.”

If you didn’t hear about the WMO “sounding the Red Alert,” it’s probably because it barely made the news. The weekend weather forecast gets more coverage than a global red alert from the world’s meteorologists. Instead, we are inundated with articles and commentary gloating over the plight of carbon pricing or counselling strategic retreat on that policy.

But if you’re paying attention to the big picture, you don’t have to be a fan of carbon taxes to realize that we couldn’t be acting against carbon pollution aggressively enough or pulling hard enough on every possible lever to stop fossil fuels.

“This sudden heat spike greatly exceeds predictions made by statistical climate models,” says Schmidt. Translated to layperson’s terms, the predictions were already pretty dire. But now, even the top experts don’t know what the hell is going on: “Many reasons for this discrepancy have been proposed but, as yet, no combination of them has been able to reconcile our theories with what has happened.”

Schmidt is worth quoting a bit more, not only because he’s one of the world’s top climate scientists, but because none of us would put our kids on a bus that had even a one per cent chance of crashing.

“It could imply that a warming planet is already fundamentally altering how the climate system operates, much sooner than scientists had anticipated. It could also mean that statistical inferences based on past events are less reliable than we thought, adding more uncertainty to seasonal predictions of droughts and rainfall patterns.

The planet's dire context is mostly absent from the Canadian carbon pricing debate, writes @zerocarbon @WMO #cdnpoli #StateOfClimate #WeCannotWait #EarlyWarningsForAll

“Much of the world’s climate is driven by intricate, long-distance links — known as teleconnections — fuelled by sea and atmospheric currents. If their behaviour is in flux or markedly diverging from previous observations, we need to know about such changes in real-time. We need answers for why 2023 turned out to be the warmest year in possibly the past 100,000 years. And we need them quickly.”

That planetary context is mostly absent from the Canadian debate. Somehow, we manage to debate climate policy while ignoring the climate itself. And the country-by-country context is almost entirely invisible. Over half of Canadians tell pollsters that our country is doing its fair share to combat climate change.

But as you know from last week’s Zero Carbon newsletter, Canada is well offside other wealthy countries when it comes to carbon pollution. The world’s rich countries have cut fossil fuel emissions back to 1973 levels, on average. Last year, carbon emissions from Europe fell to 60-year lows. But Canada’s carbon spew diverged from the pack since the 1990s and the gap keeps growing.

Several of you asked to hear more about what’s driving this growing gap and our resident data cruncher was happy to oblige. It was Barry Saxifrage who first pointed out that Canada is an exception to First World progress. Just to recap, here’s how Canada’s CO2 emissions look compared to the average for advanced economies.

So, what accounts for that clear divergence after the 1990s? “The Big 3 sectors account for most of the changes,” says Saxifrage: “Oil and gas, transport, and electricity. In the 1990s, just about everything shot up, including all of the Big 3.”

Here’s a visual display of changes in each sector from 1990 onwards.

In the 2000s, Canada’s electricity sector noticeably got its act together. Ontario, in particular, with the coal phaseout under the provincial Liberals. But the oil and gas industry, as well as transport, kept skyrocketing. The net result was an overall plateau through the 2000s.

If you’re wondering about that big drop in carbon pollution from heavy industry, it’s not really a story of systemic improvement — half the cut (11 MtCO2) came from closing one big adipic acid factory.

Then “in the 2010s (pre-pandemic), only electricity declined,” says Saxifrage. “Every other sector increased emissions. This is the critical decade when most advanced economies cut emissions, but Canada increased them. We have an economy-wide problem, except for electricity.”

That’s a key point: it’s easy to see that the oil and gas industry is the biggest and fastest-growing driver of the gap. “How do you spell TARSANDS????” one newsletter reader replied last week.

Overall, fossil fuel production is causing about 30 per cent of Canada’s total emissions. Even if climate pollution from the oil and gas sector was magicked away, we’d still have to cut the other 70 per cent. As so many readers clearly understand, climate change keeps getting worse until greenhouse gas emissions are cut to zero (net zero for the wonkier-minded).

Transportation is another big culprit. It’s a tough one because Canadian vehicles are among the most polluting in the world and the fleet turns over slowly. The Europeans are finding it tough as well, but with targeted government policies, they have cut oil consumption roughly 13 per cent since the highs of 2005/06.

EV adoption is over twice as high as in Canada and many European nations have a new car tax that drastically increases the price of gas guzzlers. If we might circle back to the tax ruckus for a moment, we’d note it was precipitated over the upcoming $15 per tonne carbon tax increase. Adding together the various fuel and carbon taxes in Canada and Europe, you find road fuels about $300 more per tonne of CO2 across the Atlantic.

The post-pandemic situation in Canada is hard to read. And that’s a major problem for advocates of climate policy because the pandemic scrambled any results that policies like the carbon tax might be having. The federal carbon tax only came into effect across the whole country in 2019. Several national policies came even later and some are still in the works.

There was an obvious rebound after the pandemic, which other wealthy countries have since turned back. The most recent data for Canada come from unofficial estimates — they show we are still below pandemic levels but ticking upwards.

It’s a real frustration for data analysts: you can get stock market reports up to the second, but the most recent official Canadian greenhouse gas data is for 2021. In April, the feds will release the “National Inventory Report, 2024.”

Despite the title, it will only give figures for 2022. Two independent organizations — the Canadian Climate Institute and the Energy Institute (formerly BP Statistical Review of Energy) both estimate Canadian carbon emissions increased in 2022 and Saxifrage used the Energy Institute data for his charts above.

Chris Hatch writes Canada's National Observer's celebrated Sunday newsletter, Zero Carbon. Chris is the former executive director of Rainforest Action Network as well as the former executive editor at Canada's National Observer. He is now a columnist at National Observer and writes the acclaimed Sunday newsletter, Zero Carbon.

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"Over half of Canadians tell pollsters that our country is doing its fair share to combat climate change."

What do Canadians base that belief on?
Not on facts or evidence, obviously.

As a share of the global total, Canada's carbon footprint is 3x our population share.
And that's assuming our reported emissions are accurate, which they are not.
Canada grossly underreports its emissions in at least two categories: O&G and forestry.
On per capita emissions, Canada ranks #4, just behind Saudi Arabia, USA, and Australia.
If other nations followed our example, global emissions would skyrocket.

If Canadians are not basing that belief on facts or evidence, the claim is unfounded, irrational, and nonsensical. Like so much of our climate "debate".
Why can't we think rationally about climate?

Clearly not on facts or evidence, but on misinformation/disinformation on social media being pushed by the oil & gas industry with their greenwashing and the conservatives. I find so many on social media who take the garbage posted as fact, without a single thought whether it is true or not. Even some of the so-called influencers can't get their facts straight. Have people lost the ability to fact check anything, or is it just pure laziness on their part to even bother?

An excellent article.

Although dwelling on current and past emissions increases and decreases is a good foundation upon which to build new climate policy frameworks, it's important to try to maintain a sense of optimism.

I believe cities have a supremely important role to play that is currently not recognized or is undervalued while climate fighters focus on fossil fuels, renewables, rural conservation and agriculture.

Though urban jurisdictions fall under the constitutional perview of the provinces, the federal government has not fully taken advantage of its influences over urban objectives. The federal government has the power of national regulation and financial influence behind it, and these could be used in agreements with cities to reward, say, zoning away the sprawling now obsolete large lot, single use subdivision by directly building new transit infrastructure, with or without provincial participation.

Benjamin Barber wrote a book called 'Cool Cities' that elucidates ways on how that may be done, and goes on to explain how cities could work together to resist the dampening control senior governments impose on their own urban areas. Cities are the economic engines of the nation, but they don't recognize their own power yet and lack the knowledge on how to use it in the climate fight.

The feds must play a larger role and learn to work with cities directly to improve the lives of the majority of citizens without stepping on the toes of belligerent provinces. Surely the fact that federal urban ridings exist and contain tens of millions of federal constituents would have a definable role within the Constitution.

Haven't we devolved enough power to provincial fiefdoms already?

Some good ideas, but if you reside in Alberta and paid attention to the fury caused by Calgary city council trying to eliminate packaging for fast might start to wonder if there's any hope for Canada at all. We have a conservative movement that seems to distrust and hate governance wherever it might originate. They don't want any change, except the change that puts more change in their pockets.

I fear we've been living beyond our means for so long that having to pay for anything........including a liveable planet for our children's children, is a bridge too far. Inside the right wing ideological bubble, there's only weather........and if its bad weather, Trudeau caused it.

Wish I knew how to wake more of us up to the grim reality we're facing.......but even suggesting it would likely only get me labelled as Woke.....a kind of ideological thought crime for those who know global warming is just a hoax.

Why haven't folk made the connection: If we eliminate the carbon tax, we will also eliminate the rebate. Since the majority of the population get more back than they pay, their incomes are actually *increased*, (by a tax-free subsidy from the Federal government). The "losers" are the rich, consuming a disproportionate share of petroleum products and generating a disproportionate share of emissions, and there is scant sympathy in the public for their economic plight. It is actually a very cleverly designed Robin Hood tax - take from the rich and give to the poor. Far from adding an economic burden for the average citizen, it actually profits them.