Canada's new climate plan demonstrates the price we pay for procrastination
Actions taken a decade ago would be bearing fruit now. We're running out of time.
Addressing unnamed politicians who would say that the current moment — with the war in Ukraine stoking inflation and driving up gas prices — is a bad time for fighting climate change, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told his audience in Vancouver on Tuesday that "this is no time for excuses."
"The question is not whether we keep going on climate action," Trudeau argued. "The question is how much more we can do, and how quickly."
The climate plan Trudeau's government released on Tuesday is one proposal for how much and how fast Canada should move. His government will continue to face questions about whether it is moving as quickly as it could.
But the new report also shows exactly how much bolder Canada's governments and industries must be if this country is to do its part to ensure a livable future for the planet — and exactly where the boldest action is necessary.
The new official plan for meeting Canada's greenhouse gas emissions reductions target for 2030 is the first mandatory report to Parliament under new climate accountability legislation. The 271-page document, a detailed account of what has been done and must be done to meet Canada's emissions targets, was quickly hailed as a "watershed moment" for Canadian climate policy.
In time, these regular progress reports may come to rival the annual budget as the most important document released by the federal government.
But the most useful aspect of this first report is how it lays out the possible emissions trajectories for each of Canada's major sources of greenhouse gases. This is the first time the federal government has looked forward to 2030 in such detail.
In his remarks Tuesday, Trudeau chose to focus on the oil and gas and transportation sectors — for good reasons.
While overall emissions in Canada have been relatively stable over the last 17 years, the national trend has obscured significant differences between sectors.
"Since 2005, emissions in the oil and gas and transportation sectors have increased by 20 per cent and 16 per cent, respectively," the report notes. "Decreases in electricity (48 per cent), heavy industry (12 per cent) and waste and others (10 per cent) have offset these increases."
The oil and gas and transportation sectors are also the two largest sources of emissions in Canada.
The challenge is most acute – and most politically fraught – in oil and gas. As the government acknowledges in its own report, "the oil and gas sector contributes significantly to the Canadian economy" and "the challenge of meeting Canada's climate objectives and transforming an industry as complex as oil and gas to net-zero emissions is huge."
In its projections, the government suggests the oil and gas industry could reduce its annual emissions from 191 megatonnes in 2019 to 110 Mt in 2030 — a 31 per cent reduction from 2005 levels.
The government identifies several policy levers that could help the industry get there — a new investment tax credit for carbon capture and storage, a declining cap on the sector's emissions and a focus on reducing methane leaks. It also promises support for workers who might be affected by disruptions in the sector.
Trudeau — a prime minister the Conservatives have enthusiastically labelled "anti-oil" — framed these projections in decidedly pro-industry terms.
"If there's any oil and gas sector in the world that can do it, it's Canada," he said. "And if there's any workforce in the world that can drive this shift, it's Canadians."
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney — who has been agitating for the federal government to freeze the national carbon tax and posting memes about green energy policies — might not be so optimistic. Even Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley dismissed the federal projections as "fantasy."
WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveils emissions report
The federal Conservatives warned that expecting such reductions from the oil and gas sector would have a "devastating effect." The government, Conservatives said, should instead focus on getting Canada's "ethical energy" to the world — though how energy products could be described as "ethical" if they can't be reconciled with Canada's climate targets is a riddle.
Industry executives might be more willing to play along, with the caveat that such reductions will require a great deal of "cooperation" — significant amounts of public funding, in other words.
The tax credit for carbon capture and storage is likely to appear in next month's federal budget, though it might not be as generous as oil executives were hoping. The industry would like the credit to cover 75 per cent of new investment costs. The government might offer to cover 50 per cent.
But Trudeau also seems ready to argue the industry is capable of helping itself.
"With record profits, this is the moment for the oil and gas sector to invest in the sustainable future that will be good for business, good for communities, and good for our future," he said on Tuesday.
Industry leaders might also note that some critics think the sector got off easy in Tuesday's plan.
In advance of the report's release, the Pembina Institute argued the industry should be able to reach 88 Mt by 2030 — a 45 per cent reduction in line with Canada's overall goal. Caroline Brouillette, the executive director of the Climate Action Network, said in a statement on Tuesday that "some sectors — most notably oil and gas — will not contribute their fair share."
Some emissions are harder to reduce than others and not every economic sector or province is going to move at the same pace. Matters of "fairness" and feasibility will always be up for debate.
But the abiding lesson of climate policy is that avoiding reality doesn't make anything easier. Lower emissions for oil and gas in 2030 might be easier to envision now, for instance, had action been taken sooner after 2005. One might gaze wistfully at the climate plan that Stephen Harper's government tabled in 2008, with its promise that tough new requirements would be imposed on the oilsands.
There may be some risk in trying to act too fast. But the simple math of climate change is even harder to avoid now. And if Canadian leaders don't move as boldly as possible in the short term, it might be just that much harder to reduce emissions later.
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