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Canada confirms its ever-weakening climate policy as the U.S. announces ambitious plan to cut carbon pollution

Danielle Droitsch

Posted June 5, 2014 in Moving Beyond Oil

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As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would seek to reduce carbon pollution from power plants – a move that would put the U.S. on a trajectory to meeting its international climate obligations – Canada continued to move in the opposite direction.  Canada has now confirmed it will no longer take action to limit carbon pollution from its tar sands sector until the U.S. takes simultaneous action on its oil and gas sector.   Previously, Canada has indicated it would act unilaterally to ratchet down on soaring greenhouse gas emissions from its tar sands sector which pose the greatest barrier to the country meeting its international climate commitments.  But any hope that the Obama administration’s announcement this week might instill simultaneous leadership for action from the current Conservative government evaporated.

Basically the Canadian position sets up a false equivalence as a way to justify doing nothing.  The real issue is whether a country is acting to reduce its carbon pollution.  The main way the U.S. can do that is to limit pollution from power plants – the single largest U.S. source, and that’s what the U.S. just announced it was doing.  The main way for Canada to cut carbon pollution is to reduce the burgeoning emissions from its tar sands development, and Canada just announced that it isn’t doing that.  So the contrast is clear:  meaningful action vs. significant foot-dragging.  Anything else is a distraction. In a historic announcement, the Obama administration unveiled plans to cut U.S. carbon pollution emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, leading to climate and health benefits worth as much as $93 billion while avoid up to 6,600 premature deaths and up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children.  And the plan, if strengthened, could create more than 274,000 new jobs related to energy efficiency and renewable energy triggered by the standards.

Within a few hours of the U.S. announcement, the Canadian government said it was ready to work with the U.S. on rules for the continent’s oil and gas sector.  Canada’s Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq stated the Harper government “would like to work in concert with the United States on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector.  The integration of our economies suggest our countries should be taking action together, not alone.”  This was echoed by Canadian Ambassador to the U.S. Gary Doer who took to the airwaves with a similar message.

But this reaction from the Canadian government (something they had already signaled in late 2013) is, in fact, a policy shift away from a promise it had made to the Canadian public that it would regulate this sector.  Why is it so important for Canada to take action? Surging emissions from the tar sands industry – the highest-emitting sector in Canada – are responsible for a quarter of national emissions, according to the Pembina Institute.  Because of this, Canada is expected to miss its international 2020 climate target by a wide margin - more than the current emissions of Canada’s entire electricity sector, according to the Pembina Institute.  The federal Canadian government clearly hopes that its call for harmonized federal regulations becomes a convenient distraction away from any attention that it has still not regulated its massive oil and gas  (tar sands) industry.  Let’s keep in mind that work on these Canadian regulations started back in 2008. But now, almost eight years later, the long-promised regulations on its tar sands sector are merely a pipedream.  Now, they are indicating they won’t act unless the U.S. regulates carbon from its oil sector. There are good reasons why Canada should move ahead to regulate its tar sands sector (a sector which does not exist in the United States) given its significant contribution to Canada’s climate pollution problem.  In short, the two countries have very different emissions profiles.

U.S. and Canada climate emissions
2011 emissions by sector for Canada and the U.S. Data sources: Environment Canada and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Oil and gas already accounts for 23 per cent of Canada’s emissions, and that share is projected to grow as tar sands production ramps up. Despite the recent growth in domestic U.S. production, oil and gas only makes up about six per cent of their emissions.

According to Canada’s Pembina Institute, “The best way Ottawa could respond to today’s announcement by the EPA would be to make an equally serious commitment to hit Canada’s 2020 climate target, and produce the rules required to cut emissions from the oil and gas sector. The government’s ongoing delay in releasing those rules is indefensible.”The Canadian government largely defends its failed climate record by pointing to its recently adopted regulations on the coal-fired electricity sector.  Canada has made good progress on its coal sector (largely due to leadership from its provinces like Ontario) but its federal regulations are weak and do not apply to existing units (built before July 2015) until they have reached the end of their economic life.  What does this mean?  This mean a coal plant can run for a full half century without federal GHG limits.  For one unit in Alberta which started operations in 2011, this means continued operation without carbon pollution limits until 2061.  Altogether, the coal regulations will reduce Canada’s total emission by less than 1 percent.

In the end, the U.S. administration is working hard to demonstration international climate leadership to both meet its climate obligations and to help spur other countries to do the same.   The question is whether Canada will look to this development as an opportunity to make serious progress on its climate commitments (which will require regulations on its oil and gas sector) or whether it will be business as usual. 

Canada’s position on climate ought to be part of the overall calculus for the Obama administration and Secretary Kerry’s State Department, which is evaluating the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  International climate leadership should be something they look for as part of the national interest determination.  So far, Canada hasn’t measured up. 

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Comments

tmarshJun 5 2014 11:10 PM

As much as I hate to agree with the sitting government in Canada, Canada has already regulated it's coal power generation. I am sure there are many south of the border wishing and hoping Canada will take unilateral action on oil and gas. Especially those in oil and gas, competing with Canada and its very healthy reserves could be an issue for the US oil and gas sector. I wonder why the conservatives want to work with the Obama administration again?

Rob WatsonJun 6 2014 10:24 AM

Although technically correct, the graph above is misleading. Electricity is purely a derived demand from electricity consumers. 70+ percent of electricity is used in buildings. If the electricity demand for buildings were attributed to that sector, you would correctly surmise that buildings is where we should put our effort to curb demand.

This should be the case, regardless of the electricity fuel source, since ALL sources of electricity supply have some negative environmental impacts.

A Proud CanadianJun 6 2014 09:15 PM

You have to remember the United States outsources a large amount of its CO2 from oil production to other Countries like Canada, Venezuela, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia. If you were to use consumption-based accounting of co2 emissions which is being recognized more and more as the more valid way of assigning “cause” for CO2 emissions, then 7-8Mbpd of oil production (what the US imports) would not show up on the producers ledger…… it would show up on the ledger of the country for which the oil is being demanded (i.e. you).
Why should Canada put its oil at a disadvantage against other heavy oils by unilaterally penalizing itself. Your role as the consumer demands coordination. Pretty straight forward. Now get to it.

It was easy to go it alone on coal for the US. You produce it and use it. When you use less of it as the consumer (coal fired power), you will export the excess to other countries. I didn’t notice a cap on coal production….. just coal consumption.

What is indefensible is the US hasn’t taken Canada up on its offer. Could it be that a clear path to an agreement and pipeline approval is not is a small minorities interest in your country?

Canada has regulated its coal industry long before you have. Canada generates electricity from renewables sources far more than you (Canada 63% US 11.2%). Canada taxes end use of fossil fuels more than you (compare the prices of gasoline).
You finally do something and then choose to crow about it.
Feels like when you’ve been cleaning the house all day…. you sit down, and someone comes in from the beach and calls you lazy (and should get out more).

So back to my previous questions of you:
Why on earth aren’t you in Saudi Arabia right now Danielle protesting these guys? They produce 11.6Mbpd!!!!! With much of the new production being heavy insitu oil much more carbon intensive than oilsands. Why?
To add (since you are criticizing governments)
Why are you not criticizing the Saudi Government as they pollute our children’s lungs?
I should be able to read up on all of the action you’ve taken by clicking on your hashtag #Riyadh. Why can’t I?
Why are you not in Beijing right now!
Caracas?

Danielle?

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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