Tough challenge to implement Alberta's ambitious climate plan

Alberta unveiled its climate plan a year ago but still faces an arduous task of implementing the various facets of its plan to tackle climate change.

Experts point to several policies that will be difficult to execute

Ed Whittingham (right) of the Pembina Institute jokes about how he looks dazed in this photo from Alberta's climate plan announcement last November. He calls it an ambitious plan and a challenge to implement. (Government of Alberta)

Ed Whittingham chuckles about his dazed appearance in a photo taken during the Alberta government's announcement of its plan to tackle climate change. It was a significant occasion with environmental, Indigenous and oilpatch leaders all on stage together supporting the premier.

Whittingham, with the environmental think-tank the Pembina Institute, should have been joyous, but for some reason he looks stunned in the picture.

"Perhaps it was the ambition of the announcement," he said to the sold-out crowd at Pembina's climate conference in Calgary on Tuesday. "It's breathless, maybe I was pondering that."

The climate plan is indeed aggressive and extensive. It's the most significant change the NDP has made so far as government. While the broad plan is known, the government faces an arduous task of implementing the various facets of its plan to tackle climate change. 

"Not only is it the most ambitious climate energy policy we know of amongst any energy producing jurisdiction, it is perhaps the single largest step taken by any jurisdiction at any time, anywhere," said Whittingham. 
Environment Minister Shannon Phillips hopes to unveil several aspects of Alberta's climate plan by the end of 2016. (CBC)

Minister's update

Environment Minister Shannon Phillips admits the workload is significant, with a deadline for some of the policies to be unveiled by the end of the year. Other initiatives will need more time to figure out.

Here's the latest progress by the government:

  • Working with the electricity system operator on how to achieve the goal of relying on renewables for 30 per cent of electricity consumption by 2030. Details are coming soon, including how communities can participate.
  • Renewing the province's micro-generation policy, so individual homeowners and small businesses can produce their own electricity. 
  • Consulting with First Nations about opportunities and adaptation related to the climate plan. 
  • Introducing a new innovation panel this week to see how the government should support innovation in green technology. 
  • Listening to an expert panel on energy efficiency that toured the province this summer and should wrap up its work in the fall. 
  • Creating regulations around capping oilsands emissions. Some initial advice from an expert panel should be given by the end of the year.

"If it sounds like a lot of work to implement, you are right, it is," said Phillips.

More details are needed about some of the pillars of Alberta's climate plan, such as phasing out coal power plants, introducing a carbon tax and reducing methane emissions.

"I don't know if there is a most difficult file," Phillips told reporters. "I think we have a number of different pieces we hope to land before the end of the year, including energy efficiency programs for individual homeowners, small businesses, municipalities, non-profits."

Capping the oilsands

Of all the tasks, the Alberta government's 100-megatonne emissions cap on future oilsands development could prove to be the most challenging to create, according to Whittingham. Oilsands operations currently emit about 70-megatonnes per year, so one question is how the remaining space under the cap will be allocated.

"This is the first time a government has really taken the greenhouse gas elephant in the room head on," he said. "Trying to figure out all the regulatory details for something that is a much-needed regulatory instrument, but is new, is definitely going to be challenging." 

The additional policy decision involving oilsands operators is figuring out how much of the carbon tax these companies will have to pay.

Carbon tax and methane 

Implementing the carbon tax itself is considered relatively easy, considering Alberta is following in the footsteps of neighbouring B.C. However, how the Alberta government handles the impact on its deregulated electricity system will be intriguing to watch.

"The challenge will be to respond to the carbon price and, initially, I would say, in the power generation section," said David Hone, the chief climate change adviser with Shell International, in an interview with CBC News. "Thirty dollars [per tonne] will have an impact on coal power generation, it will encourage natural gas and it will encourage more renewables. The carbon price really is the focus point here." 

Shell's David Hone, who has written and researched about carbon pricing systems around the world, says Alberta will have to manage the impact to its electricity generation sector. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

Electricity prices in the province are expected to jump next year because of the carbon tax. In addition, the Alberta government hopes the courts will prevent power companies from backing out of agreements, which could also drive up prices.

Some experts suggest taking action on methane should be a top priority for Alberta considering the sizable oil and gas industry in the province. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and its reduction could more effectively slow the rate of global warming.

"The oil and gas industry is one of the largest sources of methane on the planet, behind only agriculture globally," said Mark Brownstein, with the Environmental Defense Fund.

"There is a tremendous challenge here for the industry, but also a tremendous opportunity for the industry to make a very significant contribution to reducing climate change, simply by taking care of this problem," he said.

Alberta's climate plan received international attention because it was comprehensive and robust.

But now the government needs to deliver on what made the climate announcement so substantial nearly one year ago.