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Canada’s Climate Change Goals Need a Roadmap for Action

Jul 14, 2016
Photo of  Louis Thériault
Public Policy

The Canadian government and many provincial governments have taken important steps toward addressing climate change through the implementation of policies such as carbon pricing. The next, even harder steps—environmental, as well as economic and social—are still to come. To even come close to the targets that have been set, the implications for Canadians have to be better spelled out.

Leaders at the Paris Climate Change Conference (COP 21) committed to decrease greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. This so-called 80X50 goal is described as a crucial step to holding global temperature increases to 2 degrees.

Achieving this goal will be a significant challenge for Canada. Our per capita GHG emissions are very high—only the U.S. and Australia fare worse in The Conference Board of Canada’s How Canada Performs: Environment report card, which examines the environmental performance of 16 advanced countries. While most European peers have managed to reduce their total emissions, Canada is second only to Australia for the highest increase in GHG emissions since 1990.

Moreover, Canada ranks second to last among the peer countries and scores a “D” grade on energy intensity in the How Canada Performs report card. Our geography and climate play a large role in our high energy consumption, but so does our economy’s reliance on primary industries such as resource extraction and agriculture, as well as manufacturing.

In addition to having a long way to go, Canada does not have a map to get there. Moving the dialogue beyond goals set in Paris to making changes will take extensive technological, economic, and social analysis. A recent and comprehensive study estimating the potential for nationwide GHG cuts with existing technologies comes from The Canadian Academy of Engineering. The results are some of the most objective, and sobering, to date.

By achieving the GHG reduction measures outlined in the most aggressive scenario, Canada would reduce emissions to 70 per cent below 1990 levels in 2050. Under this scenario, electricity and biofuels would have to provide almost 20 per cent of energy for transportation by 2030, up from 3 per cent in 2011. Electricity would have to assume more of a role in home heating. Furthermore, the electricity sector itself would have to all but rid itself of fossil fuels, and electricity would have to flow across provincial boundaries. Canada has promise in this area, ranking fifth in the How Canada Performs ranking on Low-Emitting Electricity Production. Yet, despite a transformation of this scale, Canada would still fall short of meeting the 80X50 goal.

Singling out one aspect of the contributors to climate change—transportation—shows how far Canada has to go. The Conference Board recently estimated the measures that would be needed to reduce Canadian road transportation emissions to 80 per cent below 1990 levels. The options considered—increasing sales of plug-in electric vehicles and hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles, raising the share of vehicles powered by natural gas, and growth in the share of bicycle or foot transportation—would reduce GHG emissions by slightly more than half of the target needed to reach the 80 per cent reduction. Achieving further reductions would require Canadians to make significant adjustments, including technological, attitudinal, and behavioural changes.

Canada’s position is further complicated because GHG reduction targets are set country by country, but the overall objective of holding temperature increases down is a global target. As a result, Canadian exports of relatively clean energy (notably liquefied natural gas or hydroelectricity) can slow the growth in global emissions, such as those from coal-fired electricity generation in Asia. However, the emissions generated in producing this energy become part of Canada’s totals, putting additional pressure on our targets.

Ontario’s proposed Climate Change Action Plan provides an example of the aggressive action plans just beginning to emerge. The recently revealed plan includes billions of dollars in grants, rebates, and subsidies for businesses and industries; incentives to encourage the use of low-carbon vehicles; new building codes; lower-carbon fuel standards; and new rail and cycling infrastructure. At a minimum, its breadth is acknowledgement that a lower-carbon society is a different way of life.

Climate change cannot be viewed in isolation. Implementing policies to combat climate change is likely to be extremely difficult without major changes in how Canadians live and work. In particular, energy transition must be the centrepiece of climate change policy so that the pathways we choose maximize environmental objectives and minimize economic disruptions. The Conference Board has undertaken an initiative to work with The Canadian Academy of Engineering to provide sound, evidence-based insights to help inform many discussions and debates that need to happen.

At this time, we have a noble aspiration, but no common-sense plan to achieve it. In many ways, we face a Lewis Carroll moment: “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”

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