In the days since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged a 40% reduction in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, analysts and news outlets have been weighing in on what it will take for the country to hit a target that many climate advocates consider far too modest, but its proponents see as a very heavy lift.
The day before Trudeau’s speech to U.S. President Joe Biden’s Leaders’ Summit on Climate, seven Canadian climate organizations released modelling that showed how the country could cut its emissions 60% by 2030. In the hours after the big reveal, Trudeau’s commitment immediately drew comparisons to Biden’s promise that the U.S. will cut is emissions 50 to 52% this decade.
But much of the follow-up analysis focused on what a tougher target would mean for Canada’s resource-based industries—with the Alberta tar sands/oil sands front and centre.
In an opinion piece for CBC, University of Alberta energy economist Andrew Leach says the country needs better climate policies, not another round of “target bingo”, adding that to match Biden’s 50% threshold, Canada would have to set far tougher climate policies than the U.S.
“The fundamental problem with agreeing to reduce our emissions by the same percentage as the U.S. relative to some historic year (say, 50% below 2005 levels by 2030) is that we’d require more stringent policies to reach that outcome,” he writes. “Since we don’t want policies too far out of step with those of our largest trading partner, we’ll end up not meeting our targets.”
Leach traces the discrepancy to the differences between the two country’s energy systems, with Canada’s tar sands/oil sands as the “emissions elephant in the room”.
• The U.S. reduced its electricity sector emissions by nearly 35% between 2005 and 2019, with coal-fired generation falling by more than half, fossil gas increasing 108%, and emission-free electricity sources growing 35%. But its grid still produces 0.417 tonnes of carbon pollution per megawatt-hour of electricity output, compared to just over 0.1 tonne in Canada. The Canadian grid was 83% emissions-free by 2019, Leach says, leaving the country “in a completely different place without a lot of easy room for improvement.”
• Oil production in both countries has increased rapidly since 2005, but more so in the U.S. Gas output grew 75% in the U.S., while falling about 10% in Canada. But “emissions from oil and gas extraction overall are up 66% in Canada since 2005, driven by an accelerating shift toward production of higher-emissions oilsands. In the U.S., production has shifted away from emissions-intensive thermal production to lower-emissions light-tight oil.” So “whatever Canada’s government commits to in terms of emissions reductions must translate directly to changes in the oilsands sector or our commitments aren’t credible.”
• Canada has a national carbon pricing system, and Leach points out that the modelling released by leading Canadian climate organizations put a doubling or tripling of the national floor price—to $340 or $510 per tonne by 2030—at the centre of a push to reduce emissions by 60% this decade. “All carbon revenue collected would be recycled back to households and businesses to support emission reductions and to address income impacts, with a special emphasis on addressing low-income households and vulnerable people,” the groups state. But Leach says that would still set Canada up for far more economic disruption than an American system that “can get much further with much less stringent policies.”
Globe and Mail reporter Jeffrey Jones points to other factors that leave Canadian industry “ill-equipped” to gear up for rapid carbon reductions. He agrees the tar sands/oil sands “are the mean reason” the country’s oil and gas extraction emissions have grown by two-thirds since 2005.
“The problems stem from how our economy is heavily dependent on the export of natural resources, and especially hydrocarbons, as well as companies’ slow take-up of the global disclosure standards necessary to gauge progress and risks. At some point, government and regulators are going to have to get tough on enforcing adherence,” Jones writes.
“Of course, industry- and government-funded research and development is under way in hopes of hitting upon a moonshot-type revolution in technology, or a series of small breakthroughs to deal with emissions from the oil sands,” he adds. “But the numbers suggest pressure on the rest of the economy, especially transport and electrical generation, to get past 40 to 45% as 2030 draws near.”