Environment ministers face rising carbon emissions numbers

New projections about rising greenhouse gas emissions in Canada show the scale of the task facing the country's environment ministers, who are meeting in Ottawa today.
A chart included in briefing material for the new minister of the environment, released under Access to Information, presents three scenarios for the output of greenhouse gas emissions, based on current levels and potential economic trends. (Environment and Climate Change Canada)

New projections about rising greenhouse gas emissions in Canada show the scale of the task facing the country's environment ministers, who are meeting in Ottawa today.

Documents obtained under Access to Information suggest the provincial, territorial and federal governments will need to make tough decisions if Canada can meet its international pledge to cut climate-warming pollution. 

The ministers will spend the day behind closed doors in Ottawa's Old City Hall in a session chaired by federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna. It's the first time in a decade that they have been invited to meet with their federal counterpart to specifically to talk about climate change.

Ontario's Liberal environment minister, Glen Murray, says it's a completely different relationship from the government of former prime minister Stephen Harper.

"That was a simple relationship — he had nothing to do with us, we nothing to do with him. Now we have a new friend and now the tent is more crowded," said Murray in an interview with CBC News.

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Things could get pretty tense inside that tent today, as the ministers take a close look at what each jurisdiction is doing now and figure out the actual gap with Canada's total commitments so far.

Numbers prepared last fall for the incoming federal environment minister, based on the 2015 Emissions Trends report, reveal the challenge ahead. (The numbers are expected to change when updated figures are released Friday, but sources say they won't be much different.)

Federal minister Catherine McKenna, left, Alberta's Shannon Phillips and Canada's other provincial and territorial environment ministers meeting in Ottawa today have a lot to talk about - including some daunting numbers. (Dean Bennett/Canadian Press)

They show GHGs in Canada are continuing to go up, rising from 726 MT in 2013 to 766 MT by 2020.

And that's the middle-of-the-road scenario. The report provides a range of emission projections based on the economic growth and predicts the numbers in 2020 could go as high as 786 MT, if the economy and oil and gas prices pick up, or level off closer to 747 MT if growth remains flat.

That's in sharp contrast the country's Copenhagen target of 622 MT by 2020. To attain that target, Canada's emissions cuts would have to be roughly equal to the greenhouse pollution now produced by the electricity sector and all the buildings in the country.

By 2030, emissions could rise to new heights if nothing further is done. The scenario projects emissions could range from 768 MT to 870 MT. 

Canada has pledged, as part of the Paris climate agreement, to cut annual greenhouse gas pollution to 524 MT by the end of the next decade.

Getting there under the high-emissions scenario would require GHG cuts equal to all the emissions from cars, trucks electricity and buildings in the country.

Closing the gap

All this leads to a sobering meeting today, according to environmental groups.

"None of the provincial commitments are enough to get us to get us where we need to be," said Louise Comeau, executive director of the Climate Action Network. "The federal government has a role to help close the gap."

Comeau says behind closed doors there will likely to be blunt talk over who does what — and who pays for it.

"It's going to be tough negotiations on money — what will the federal government put on table to entice provinces to do more than what they are currently planning to do," said Comeau in an interview.

That task will be "huge" according Murray. He says that's because over the past decade provinces like Ontario, Quebec and B.C. crafted plans to cut emissions while they continued to rise in provinces such as Alberta and Saskatchewan.

"It deals with equity issues and how do you fairly distribute the burden?" he said.

Environment ministers meet

8 years ago
Duration 10:34
Ontario's environment minister looks ahead to the provinces' meeting with the feds on a national climate strategy.

Murray said the environment ministers can't answer that question by the end of the day, but he would like come out with some potential solutions to tell Canadians.

"What are the quick action programs that governments can get out to reduce emissions?"

Friday's meeting is setting the stage for a First Minister's conference in early March to craft a National Climate Strategy. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged to hold that meeting within 90 days of the UN climate summit in Paris.

Trudeau's office announced earlier this week that he will travel to Edmonton to meet with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley next Wednesday

The findings of the Alberta government's review of its oil and gas royalty system will be released today.