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Confronting carbon: How does Canada meet its climate targets?

The cube above represents the approximate volume a megatonne of CO2 would occupy.

By Inayat Singh, Andrew Culbert and Connie Walker

June 18, 2019

Like much of the rest of the world, Canada is on a quest to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and limit the catastrophic effects of climate change.

Under the 2015 Paris climate accord, Canada’s plan calls for a significant reduction in this country’s carbon emissions by 2030 — 30 per cent below 2005 levels. But the government has already acknowledged the country is likely to miss that target.

So what would it take for Canada to meet its international commitments? CBC News asked Navius Research, a climate-modelling company, to project how close Canada could get to its goal if certain policies were ramped up. (View the methodology.)

We selected three often-discussed approaches: increasing the carbon tax, mandating sales of electric vehicles and greening the electrical grid.

Policies compared

Our current emissions Without any plan, Canada’s emissions would continue to grow, as shown by the red line. Canada’s target is to get emissions down to about 511 megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e) in 2030.

The Pan-Canadian Framework (PCF) Under the federal government’s plan, called the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, along with current provincial efforts, emissions would be reduced significantly — but still miss the 2030 target by 109 Mt of CO2e.

Expand the carbon tax The plan’s centrepiece, the carbon tax, starts at $20 per tonne of CO2e emitted and maxes out at $50/tonne of C02e by 2022. If the carbon tax continued to grow by $10 a year to $130 per tonne by 2030, the target would still be missed by 70 Mt.

Zero-emissions electricity How about emissions-free electricity? About 81 per cent of Canada’s power comes from renewable sources and nuclear energy. Upping that to 100 per cent by 2030 gets us closer to the target, but still misses it by 70 Mt.

Total conversion to electric vehicles The government wants us to start switching to electric vehicles, with a modest goal of 30 per cent of all new vehicles sold in 2030 to be electric. Here's what happens if 100 per cent of new vehicles sold in 2030 were electric.

All policies combined Even with all of these approaches, done in conjunction with what’s already being proposed, Canada would not reach its target.

What else could we do?

The Parliamentary Budget Officer has also looked into what it would take for Canada to meet its target, and modelled a higher carbon tax that would apply to a wider swath of industrial emissions than what is currently in place. Under the current carbon pricing plan, there is a federal fuel charge and a separate emissions-based levy on industries.

Navius’s projection took the current system into account, and their analysis suggests Canada needs a multi-pronged approach that addresses emissions in a wide range of sectors, beyond what people might normally consider.

"There’s always a challenge with policy, because most people think about the types of emissions that they themselves produce," said Jotham Peters, senior partner at Navius Research. "But a lot of people don’t think about all the emissions that might originate from something else that they don’t think about on a regular basis."

For instance, about a quarter of Canada's emissions come from the oil and gas industry. Policies like a more stringent clean fuel standard would lower emissions from buildings, transportation and the oil and gas sector, and would help get Canada to its target.

But Peters said that policymakers have to consider the knock-on effects of ramping up certain regulations. If a policy imposes too many costs on a particular industry, for example, companies could relocate to another country.

Policies need to be acceptable to the public, said David Layzell, an energy systems researcher at the University of Calgary. His research looks at transforming entire systems, such as transportation, to not only cut emissions but make them more efficient.

Layzell said that a carbon tax is a good start, but won’t offer the transformative change that is required to meet the Paris goals. He believes it's about designing infrastructure (like public transit) so that it becomes more desirable to use than the current option (personal vehicles) — and reduces overall emissions in the process.

"People don't like change, typically," said Layzell. "But when the change is something that they find is more convenient, it’s more comfort, a better quality of life — they go for it."

The 109-megatonne challenge

Navius's analysis shows that even if it abides by the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, Canada will miss its 2030 emissions target by 109 megatonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent (CO2e).

Inspired by the CO2 Cube, a public art project by Millennium ART that appeared at the COP15 climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, the map below shows how much volume 109 Mt of CO2 actually takes up.

Use the drop-down menu or click on different locations on the map to move the cube and visualize the size of our emissions challenge.

Methodology

Methodology

Navius Research's analysis employs gTech, a technologically detailed economic model. It has been carefully calibrated to historical energy, emissions and economic data sources. Historical emissions are from the Canadian government’s 2019 National Inventory Report.

Under the business-as-usual (BAU) scenario, the forecast describes a hypothetical case in which all provincial and federal climate policies are cancelled moving forward.

The forecast for current and announced policies accounts for the federal Pan-Canadian Framework, along with implemented and announced climate policies in the provinces. Western Climate Initiative (WCI) credits under Québec’s cap-and-trade system are subtracted from the total. Reductions in land use, land-use change and forestry emissions are based on federal projections.

CBC News then asked Navius to project the effects of ramping up certain commonly discussed policies on top of current and announced policies. The policies we chose were: the carbon price continuing to increase by $10 per year until 2030, when it reaches $130/tonne; an electric-vehicle sales mandate reaching 100 per cent by 2030; and all electricity production in Canada coming from zero-emissions sources by 2030. These sources include renewables, nuclear, carbon capture and storage and renewable natural gas.

For the carbon tax, Navius modelled the pricing based on Canada's current system, which includes a charge on fossil fuels paid by producers or distributors, and an output-based pricing system for industrial facilities.

In the emissions-free electricity scenario, a small amount of fossil fuels are still included in electricity generation to account for backup power.



Correction: In a previous version of this story, the graphic at the top of the piece used the wrong scale to illustrate a megatonne of C02. The graphic has been updated.

Text: Inayat Singh, Andrew Culbert and Connie Walker | Design and development: Tim Kindrachuk, Adam Foord and Dwight Friesen, CBC News Labs