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The gap between Canada's proposed climate efforts and its 2030 Paris Agreement target has grown even wider in the last year. The federal government is now predicting a gap larger than all emissions from the province of Quebec.
The numbers come from the latest climate pollution projections report,"Canada's Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollutant Emissions Projections 2018." Each year, the government tallies up its projections, and each year the picture has gotten worse.
Back in 2016, the Canadian government projected that all current and proposed policies (plus emissions credits they hope to be able to count) would get Canada to within 44 million tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) of the 2030 target.
The next year the projected "emissions gap" widened to 66 MtCO2.
And now, the government's newest projections show the gap has widened even further. They now project a gap of 78 MtCO2.
Unfortunately, that's the good news.
According to the new report, Canada's actual emissions are projected to be even higher than that: 115 MtCO2 above their 2030 Paris target, or less than halfway to the target.
The government is hoping to reduce that number by 37 MtCO2 in "emissions credits" which would be bought from California and claimed from carbon in Canada’s forests. However, these credits are uncertain. For one thing Canada doesn't have permission to count them under the Paris Agreement. For another, the amount is speculative at this point (I’ll get into the details below).
With or without these credits, the latest report shows that Canada is on track to miss its 2030 climate target by a large and growing amount.
To illustrate Canada's widening emissions gap, I've created a series of charts that tell the story behind the latest government data.
Step 1: The goal
First, the goal.
Both Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau committed to meeting the same climate target for 2030. That goal, pledged under the global Paris Agreement, is to reduce climate pollution to thirty per cent below 2005 levels.
That works out to a reduction in annual emissions of 220 MtCO2 below 2005 levels.
To make it visual, imagine progress in reducing climate pollution as a green arrow stretching from the 2005 starting line on the left, to the 2030 goal line on the right.
Step 2: Current climate policies
Next, let's look at the impact of Canada's current climate policies.
The chart below includes a coloured bar showing emissions for each sector of the economy. The length of the bars indicates the projected change in emissions for that sector between 2005 and 2030, given current policies.
Starting with the electricity sector, the green bars show which sectors are expected to reduce climate pollution. Each of these move Canada closer to the goal line. Then, the red bars show sectors on track to increase climate pollution above the 2005 level. These push back the progress we're making.
The blue arrow in the bottom left shows the net result for Canada. As you can see, Canada's current climate policies fall short of the 2030 climate commitment by a long way.
It's worth underlining the two sectors that dominate this storyline.
Electricity: Under current policies, almost all of Canada’s emissions cuts are expected to come from the electricity generation sector. It's on track to emit 80 MtCO2 less in 2030 than 2005. This is being driven by two major climate policies. First, Ontario eliminated coal-fired generation. Second, the federal government has passed laws to phase out coal-fired generation nationwide.
Oil & Gas: At the other extreme, the oil & gas extraction sector is on track to cause almost all of the expected increase in climate pollution. Under current policies, this sector is projected to emit 53 MtCO2 more in 2030 than in 2005. That erases most of the progress made by the electricity sector and pushes Canada's climate progress back almost to the starting line. The primary driver is the ever-rising amounts of bitumen being extracted from the Alberta oilsands.
Step 3: Proposed policies
The federal and provincial governments have proposed — but not yet enacted — several new climate policies. These would improve the situation but would still get Canada less than halfway to the goal. The third version of my chart tells that story.
The bars on the chart above show the impact of these proposed policies.
For the green sectors, the extra emissions cuts are shown as dashed extension to their bars. These four sectors combined are expected to cut an additional 48 MtCO2.
In contrast, the proposed policies will reduce the combined climate pollution from the three red sectors by half that much — 24 MtCO2. This shrinks the length of each red bar slightly, but not enough to turn any of them green.
The purple arrow at the bottom shows the national total from all the proposed climate policies. As you can see, even if the new policies are fully enacted, Canada fails to get even halfway to its goal.
The remaining emissions gap is 115 MtCO2. For scale, that's more than the projected emissions from Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, PEI and Newfoundland & Labrador, combined.
Step 4: Hoping for credits
As I mentioned at the outset, the Canadian government is also hoping to count some "emissions credits" towards the target.
The new report lists projections for two kinds of "credits." One is an ongoing effort to claim credits that Quebec is buying from California under the Western Climate Initiative (WCI). The second is a newly introduced effort to count some carbon credits from Canada’s forests (LULUCF).
Both are speculative at this point. My chart shows them as dashed grey boxes, just below the oil & gas sector. They are currently projected to add up to 37 MtCO2 in 2030.
For those interested in the details of these hoped-for credits, I'll provide a brief tour at the end of this article.
But the most important thing to note is that even if the government finds a way to count these credits, Canada still wouldn’t be close to meeting its 2030 Paris target. Canada's climate gap would be 78 MtCO2. That's more than the province of Quebec emits today.
And, as mentioned above, this emissions gap keeps growing significantly wider each time the government updates its projections.
A quick glance at the chart reveals the primary cause of Canada's emissions gap.
Step 5: The role of rising oil & gas emissions
The Canadian government has said repeatedly and emphatically that they are committed to meeting the 2030 climate target. To do that, they will have to rein in the overwhelming driver of climate failure so far — oil & gas sector emissions.
My final chart illustrates this necessity.
If the oil & gas sector reduced emissions in line with the national goal — a 30 per cent reduction from 2005 levels — then this sector's emissions would fall by 47 MtCO2 by 2030. The yellow bar on the chart shows what this would look like.
In this scenario, Canada as a whole would be on track to meet its 2030 Paris climate target.
However, instead of reducing emissions, the oil & gas sector is on track to increase its climate pollution by 23 per cent. That's creating an emissions gap from just this one sector of 84 MtCO2. And as we've seen above, that's bigger than the nation's entire gap.
If the government continues on the current path of allowing the oil & gas sector to emit 84 MtCO2 more than its share of the nation's target, then they will need to choose other parts of the economy to make large additional cuts to make up for it. That's known as "burden shifting" and in this case the burden is the size of all the emissions from Canada’s second most populous province.
That’s the elephant in the room when it comes to Canada's climate goals. How large will governments allow the oil & gas emissions burden to grow? And the follow-up question is: who will government pick to shoulder that burden?
Unfortunately, as with previous climate reports, the government fails to address these critical questions. Instead of answers, it projects only a widening climate gap — now 78 to 115 MtCO2 — without any specifics about how it plans to close the gap.
For those of you interested in a brief overview of the two emissions credit systems the government is pursuing, read on.
1) California WCI Credits
The government's first hope for emissions credits is to find a way to count the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) offsets that Quebec is planning to buy from California.
Quebec is projected to purchase around 13 MtCO2 of credits by 2030. The province is buying them instead of cutting emissions at home, because they think it will be less expensive to pay California to cut emissions.
Unfortunately for Canada, the WCI offsets aren't currently valid under the Paris Agreement.
Moreover, the Americans have shown no sign that they are willing to do the heavy lifting that would be required to make them valid. For Canada to count cuts made by California, the USA would need to not count them. In other words, the Americans would need to report higher levels of emissions than they actually released. Otherwise there would be "double-counting."
Further muddying the waters is the ongoing inability of the world's nations to agree on the required rulebook for using international offsets of any kind under the Paris Agreement. The last two UN meetings that were meant to resolve the issue ended without an agreement.
So, there are a lot of roadblocks that Canada needs other people to clear before it can count any WCI offsets towards its 2030 climate target. If these aren't allowed then Canada's emissions gap jumps to 91 MtCO2.
2) Forest carbon (LULUCF) Credits
The second hope for credits lies in a new carbon accounting computer model that Canada is putting together for its forests. It falls under the tongue-twisting category of "Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry" (LULUCF).
This is the first year that Canada has provided an estimate for how many of these credits it might try to claim. The current estimate is for 24 MtCO2 in 2030.
There are several reasons these credits are speculative at this point:
* Not authorized yet – Canada is creating its own computer model for forest carbon and the world hasn't agreed to the rules for them yet. As Canada's report says: "UNFCCC negotiations on guidance for accounting in the post-2020 time period are ongoing, the outcome of these negotiations may influence Canada's final LULUCF accounting approaches." As a result, the government cautions that any projections it makes "should be viewed as preliminary and provisional."
* Complicated computer models – The report admits that "the identification of the direct human influence on emissions and removals is challenging since emissions and removals are affected by both human activities and by natural events (e.g. drought, fire, insect infestations, etc.), as well as by natural processes (e.g. forest growth)."
* Speculative assumptions – Some of the critical assumptions Canada is making are uncertain. Any changes could easily wipe out expected credits. For example, government is assuming that logging levels will be significantly lower in 2030 than in the past. They are assuming that wood products will be used in ways that release CO2 more slowly in the future. They are assuming wildfires won't increase. And so on.
* Canada's managed forests are actually emitting carbon — Lots of it. The government's own calculations show that Canada's managed forests have transitioned from small carbon sinks into large carbon emitters in recent years.
I've created a chart using the report's data from 1990 to 2016 to illustrate this trend. The bold red and green line shows the annual carbon gain or loss from Canada's managed forestlands. The green parts of the line show years in which the forests stored carbon. The red parts of the line are years in which the forests emitted carbon.
The primary reason for this switch to carbon emitting is the increasing scale of wildfires and insect outbreaks. Both increases are being driven in large part by human-induced climate change.
Even though our forests are shifting into being huge carbon emitters, Canada hopes to claim carbon credits from them. The yellow line on the chart shows the amount. The feds arrive at this number by ignoring the increasing emissions from wildfires and insects. Their rationale is that these are "natural" and not "anthropogenic.”
Whether Canada can find a way claim carbon offsets from forestlands that have become large carbon emitters is yet to be seen.