Parsing Ottawa’s coal claims

Earlier this month, the Obama Administration announced its plan to tackle carbon pollution from existing power plants. These proposed regulations are a central piece of the President’s Climate Action Plan, and rightly so – the electricity sector accounts for roughly a third of all U.S. greenhouse gases (GHGs).

Most analysts and environmental groups welcomed the plan as a significant step forward for U.S. climate policy. Constrained as climate politics currently are in the U.S., the president decided to push forward with a fairly ambitious approach to the country’s biggest source of carbon pollution.

But in Ottawa, the federal government’s reaction was a little different. Prime Minister Harper chided the opposition for being impressed by Obama’s move when Canada had already regulated coal power. “Not only have we already been acting but, under the regulations this government has already brought forward, we will have 150% larger reductions than those in the United States.”[1] In his view, Obama was “acting two years after this government acted and taking actions that do not go nearly as far as this government went.”

He and his ministers carried on with variations of this “thanks for coming out, America” theme for the next two weeks, including a letter-to-the-editor from Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

Was this reaction justified? U of A’s Andrew Leach suggested it might be and that perhaps credit should be given (to Canada) where due. “Serious Q: if US had adopted Cdn coal reg verbatim, would you see that as more or less stringent than EPA reg?” he asked on Twitter.

This is a fair question, and is the basis of this post. How legitimate is Ottawa’s claim to leadership on coal and climate?

First, some background.

Federal action in Canada and the US

In the fall of 2012, Canada passed a regulation limiting the amount of carbon pollution certain coal-fired power plants can emit. Starting in July 2015, any new coal-fired power plant, as well as those reaching the end of their economic life (~49yrs of operation) must limit their emissions significantly. Essentially, once a unit is covered by the regulation, it must either capture and store roughly half of its emissions or shut down. (If the unit plans to apply carbon capture and storage, the standard is deferred until 2025).

While the intent of Canada’s regulation is clearly welcome and deserves praise, there are also a number of issues that limit the effectiveness of the approach taken. From the moment the regulation was first announced four years ago by then-minister Jim Prentice, environmental groups like Pembina were clear on both fronts; we praised the government’s move, but we also flagged our concerns and proposed solutions to address them.

We were also clear about the standards by which we were assessing proposals, including their contribution to Canada’s climate and clean energy commitments. The draft regulations fell short on both counts, and were watered down further in the final version.

The U.S. approach proposed this month will set state-by-state targets for improvements in emissions per unit of electricity generated. This flexibility encourages utilities to take advantage of all the options available across the electricity system, including on- and off-site efficiency improvements and fuel-switching. This means the impact is much more immediate and the cheapest reductions are being captured first. While the level of ambition in 2030 should be higher, many of the reductions are forecast to occur early on, giving space for the EPA to tighten the standards or, even better, for Congress to finally pass comprehensive climate legislation to take their place.

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In general, Canada’s regulations are projected to have a relatively smaller impact on GHGs in the near term than the U.S. proposal. They will also do less to encourage energy efficiency and boost non-emitting electricity generation. This is partly because of different starting points in Canada and the States, but the difference lies largely in how the regulations are designed; since Canada’s standards only apply when a unit reaches old age, there is no incentive before then to shift generation to lower-emitting sources, nor any option to invest in efficiency programs.

Most of Canada’s coal plants are middle-aged and will not be regulated for years, even decades to come. Thus, the impact of Ottawa’s approach builds over time, but it will take a while before it becomes significant. Conventional coal will be phased out — but not until the end of 2061.

As a result of their design, the Canada’s federal coal regulations will contribute very little to meeting Canada’s important 2020 climate target, and absolutely nothing to Canada’s pledge to generate 90% of our electricity from non-emitting sources by 2020. (Don’t remember that commitment? Neither, it would seem, does the Prime Minister, who announced it in the 2008 Speech from the Throne and included it in Canada’s 2010 climate progress report to the UNFCCC, but has not mentioned it since)

Applied here, a broader approach like the US is proposing could enable much higher ambition, helping move Canada closer to our emissions and clean energy goals. Pembina recommended similar flexibilities to Environment Canada in our 2011 submission.

 The verdict

Ultimately, there is little substance to Ottawa’s boasts about being first and best when it comes to curbing emissions from coal. Our federal regulations, while technically on the books first, will take longer to have a significant impact, and are not stringent enough to meet the climate and clean energy goals we have set.

As for the crowing tone, I don’t recall President Obama sarcastically welcoming us to the party when Canada copy-and-pasted all of the EPA’s tailpipe regulations for light- and heavy-duty vehicles.

Thankfully, several provincial governments have been making big strides on coal power over the past decade. This year, Ontario completed a phase-out of its coal fleet. Until fairly recently, Ontario had the most coal-fired generating capacity of any province. Now it has zero. Nova Scotia has set a declining cap on emissions in the electricity sector, and B.C.’s Clean Energy Act has done much to keep the province’s electricity supply clean (thus far). Saskatchewan is currently fitting a unit with CCS — one of the first commercial-scale refits in the world.

Through Equivalency Agreements, provinces like these can choose to follow their own paths. But the federal regulation does little to guide them in a more ambitious direction.

 A study in contrasts

The bigger picture, as many have pointed out, is that President Obama is pushing quite hard against current political constraints and moving to regulate his country’s largest source of emissions. At the same time, his administration is also seeking to shift those constraints by making climate change a front-page issue, and action to address it a political winner. His Secretary of State has made climate change a central issue in U.S. diplomacy.

Prime Minister Harper, on the other hand, seems to be making excuse after excuse for not regulating Canada’s largest source of emissions, the oil and gas sector, as our commitments — purposely aligned with the Americans’ — slip out of reach. And, far from expanding political support for climate action, you’d almost think he were trying to shrink it, communicating as little as possible about climate change, save in the context of fighting an imagined $21-billion job-killing carbon tax on everything. Now, as countries work to deliver a new global deal on climate change by next year’s summit in Paris, he is seeking to take his fight against carbon pricing global with Australian PM Tony Abbott.

Don’t be surprised if some countries get confused about just which way Canada is leading the world on climate change.


[1] This claim is false on several levels: the relative decrease in 2030 electricity emissions compared to the 2005 level is projected to be in the range of 50% larger for Canada than for the US, not 150%; and this takes account of all federal and provincial action, not just “the regulations this government has already brought forward” (emphasis added). Provincial action, particularly Ontario’s coal phase-out, is the biggest driver of emission reductions in the electricity sector over this period.

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