Up In Smoke: A Decade of Canadian Inaction on Climate Change

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Thanks to Oil Sands Truth for drawing this article to our attention. It originally appeared in Vue Weekly, “Edmonton’s 100% Independent News and Entertainment weekly.”

By Scott Harris

A decade after the international community agreed to the Kyoto Protocol, and five years since Parliament ratified the agreement, there isn’t a lot of good news about how Canada has done in living up to its international obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Canada’s performance has been abysmal,” charged Graham Saul, the executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, a national coalition of environmental groups pushing for more progress on tackling climate change in the country. “We’ve lost a decade of opportunity in terms of action, and Canada is pretty much the worst performer in the world when it comes to meeting its climate change commitments.”

Under the 1997 agreement, which has now been ratified by 174 countries, Canada is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels between 2008 and 2012, which means holding total emissions in the country to under 563 megatonnes (Mt).

Instead, according to the latest national inventory of emissions compiled by Environment Canada, emissions climbed to a record 747 Mt in 2005, putting the country 32.7 per cent above its Kyoto target.

The bulk of the 151 Mt increase since 1990—a total of 137 Mt—is due to steadily rising greenhouse gas emissions in energy industries and the transportation sector over the period.

According to the report, almost a third of this increase is due to an expansion in oil and gas production for export—much of which has gone south of the border to the United States—which has climbed 162 per cent to 73 Mt since 1990.

Johanne Whitmore, a climate change policy analyst with the Pembina Institute, says that what these numbers mean is that while individual Canadians can take action by changing to compact fluorescent light bulbs and driving less, the government really needs to step up and regulate major emitters if it is going to get serious about meeting its Kyoto obligations.

“About 50 per cent of Canadian emissions come from the large industrial emitters—that includes oil sands, it includes mining companies, cement companies, coal electricity and so on,” Whitmore explained. “The government has announced regulations, but the regulations are so weak and there are so many loopholes that are currently being proposed in them, there’s a very real chance that we’re not going to get much significant reductions in the most polluting sectors in Canada. So it’s a big concern, given that they represent 50 per cent of our emissions.” Lindsay Telfer, the director of the Sierra Club of Canada’s Prairie Chapter agreed, saying that the strategy of the federal Conservatives to focus on reducing emissions intensity—thereby allowing emissions to grow along with expansion of the economy—rather than absolute emissions reductions will keep Canada headed in the wrong direction.

“Not only is the Conservative government backtracking on Kyoto commitments, but they’re not even trying to move forward with any kind of reduction strategies,” she said.

Telfer also accused the Harper government, which pledged in its “Turning the Corner” climate change strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 relative to 2006 levels, of moving the goalposts on targets.

“They’ve increased the baseline, which I think is a pretty weasely way of confusing the public on what their strategies are. The baselines internationally has always been 1990 levels, and the Conservative government federally has been trying to increase that to 2004, in some cases even to 2006.” Telfer added that Alberta, which accounts for the largest share of emissions of any province in Canada, emitting 31 per cent of Canada’s total, may single-handedly make Kyoto targets impossible to meet due to increasing production in the oil sands.

“They’re one of the main reasons why current Canadian policy is making it unable to meet our Kyoto commitments. The desire of both the Alberta government and the federal government to increase tar sands development five-fold in the coming decades represents an inability to manage the greenhouse gas levels in that region in any kind of significant way.”

According to the Sierra Club, the oil sands in 2000 released just over 23 Mt of emissions, or about three per cent of Canada’s total. Under current projections, oil sands emissions are expected to rise to as high as 100 Mt by 2015, making it the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emission growth in the country. It’s a reality that Saul says simply has to be addressed.

“The government has put into place a regulatory package—the intensity-based approach—that almost seems designed to accommodate explosive greenhouse gas emissions in the tar sands in Alberta,” he said.

“We can’t do our fair share without getting serious about tar sands emissions because tar sands emissions are going to explode in the coming years and we need to figure out a way to get them under control. And we also need a government that’s prepared to force some of the real costs back into the cost of the tar sands.”

Despite the ground lost over the past decade, Whitmore said that Kyoto targets are still achievable. “It all depends on the political will. Honestly, I think we can achieve anything if we put our foot down and decide to put real measures in place to do that, but currently there’s no will, there’s no leadership whatsoever.”

Saul concurred, and said that mechanisms in Kyoto, including international carbon trading and committing to deeper cuts in the post-2012 agreement currently being negotiated in Bali, are ways that Canada can make up for lost time.

“There’s a lot of countries around the world that are going to be over their Kyoto targets, and the Kyoto agreement foresees that,” he explained. “We can always meet our Kyoto targets, it’s just a matter of if we’re willing to engage in international carbon trading.”

While Saul conceded that trading schemes such Kyoto’s Clean Development Mechanism, which has come under some criticism, are not perfect, they are preferable to governments simply “throwing up their hands and giving up” meeting their targets.

Saul stressed that the current position of the Canadian government, which has stated that it will not meet its obligations under Kyoto, is at odds with the rest of world opinion, which is moving forward on addressing climate change.

“[Now that Australia has ratified] there’s only going to be one industrialized country in the world that hasn’t ratified the Kyoto Protocol and that’s the United States of America. And there’s only going to be two countries in the world that have no intention of meeting the commitments that they’ve signed, and that’s the United States and Canada. No other country in the world has announced that it’s not prepared to honour the commitments it’s ratified and there’s no other country that has effectively just walked away from the agreement.”

Saul said that Canada has taken a “destructive position” heading into the negotiations in Bali which will set the framework for what will happen when the first phase of Kyoto expires in 2012.

While he’s skeptical it will happen, Saul said that there needs to be a major shift in Canada’s position if it is going to reverse its record of the past decade and be part of the deep emissions reductions that scientists are saying will be necessary to avoid major climate change.

“What we’re hoping that Canada does is acknowledge that its positions so far have been extreme in terms of other industrialized countries, that Canada’s failure to reduce its own emissions have been quite profound and agree not to stand in the way of ambitious targets,” he said.

“And when the government comes home to start putting in place the kind of package that’s going to start moving us in the right direction.”