What Rick Perry can teach us about Canada’s climate commitments

SFU Professor Mark Jaccard published a great op-ed in the Globe and Mail this week on Canada’s increasingly challenging climate change target. At its heart is an amusing parallel: the Harper government’s extended failure to implement a plan to meet their own emissions goal has left them in the same position they lamented previous Liberal governments for putting them in with regards to Kyoto — committed to something on paper that would now be very expensive to achieve in reality. 

For those readers who have been tracking Ottawa’s non-progress closely, Jaccard’s findings will not come as a surprise.

If the government had acted near the start of its mandate, it could have achieved its target with a carbon price gradually escalating to $100 per tonne by 2020. By 2011, the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy found prices would need to reach $150/t in 2020 to hit the same target. A few years of inaction later, Jaccard reports it would now take a carbon price reaching $200/t to meet Canada’s goals.

Jaccard’s conclusion is that the dilly-dallying has made hitting Canada’s 2020 target prohibitively expensive, and that the government should level with Canadians and say so.

This is a completely valid point, but it’s by no means the end of the story. As George Hoberg added, “If 2020 GHG target is unattainable, what’s next? We need a serious national discussion on a feasible new target.”

What’s next

“What’s next” is, in fact, not an abstract question. As this blog has explored previously, countries are currently working to shape the next global climate deal, which they hope to deliver at next fall’s major UN climate summit in Paris. This new agreement will succeed the Copenhagen Accord, under which Canada has pledged its 2020 target.

Countries have agreed to table their proposed efforts (or “intended nationally-determined contributions” in official parlance) by March 2015 at the latest. While the specific details of what each country must include in its offer have not yet been agreed,[1] Canada will certainly need to include a proposed post-2020 emissions target. This would likely be a goal for 2025, 2030, or both, and needs to come with enough information to make the pledge transparent and easily comparable with others — key factors include end date, base year, sectors covered and treatment of land-use and forestry. The idea is for pledges to be made public well in advance of Paris so that countries can examine each other’s contributions, tally the aggregate level of effort and make adjustments before finalizing the agreement.

Historically, Canada matched its targets closely with whatever the US pledged. The latest example of this approach is our current 2020 target under the Copenhagen Accord, which was aligned specifically to match the US offer. (If you read the fine print, our commitment is “to be aligned with the final economy-wide emission reduction target of the United States of America in enacted legislation.”)

There are lots of reasons to pick a smarter approach to developing a Canadian target, but it’s still relevant to consider what the US might do. Firstly, because the America’s level of ambition has typically been seen as the ceiling for Canada’s efforts by those voicing competitiveness concerns. And, secondly, because other nations will see US efforts as a benchmark, particularly for Canada. In other words, while some in industry may not feel comfortable going much beyond what the US offers, Canada can’t offer substantially less without raising a lot of eyebrows internationally.

With that in mind, the US target — which they are “actively working on”[2] and intend to submit by March — will be one to watch. Just what it will be is still unknown, but there are good reasons to assume it will be more ambitious than the 2020 target.

All this puts Canada in a bind. If we miss our 2020 target, how about the next one? Even if our commitment remained the same, government projections show that, without significant new policies, Canada will likely drift further from our goal over time, not closer. And if our new target is significantly more ambitious… well, you get the picture. The gap becomes increasingly wide.

To illustrate the scale of the challenge, some indicative targets are shown in Figure 2, derived from the US cap-and-trade legislation mentioned in the US Copenhagen commitment and the OECD average reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions from the International Energy Agency’s 450 Scenario. The European Commission has proposed an EU-wide 2030 target of 40% below the 1990 level.

Data from Environment Canada (historic: NIR 2014; projected: ET2013/NC6)
Canada’s GHG emissions trend Data from Environment Canada (historic: NIR 2014; projected: ET2013/NC6)
2030 2
Canada’s past and projected emissions shown with indicative targets for 2025 and 2030 (illustrative purposes only)

This is where we come back to 2020. Yes, it’s hard. But it must be kept in the context of Canada’s next steps. As Rick Perry famously learned, we can’t just say “oops” and move on. 2020 is a waypoint on our pathway to deep reductions; regardless of whether we hit a specific number, we need to be well on our way to our next goals. That’s why it’s so important to lay out a clear schedule of what those goals are and how we intend to get there. The Climate Change Accountability Act is one way to make this process transparent and accountable, but no doubt there are others too.

For those of us who care about climate action, it’s important to expand our thinking beyond 2020 and start considering Canada’s place in a new global deal — including what every order of government can and should contribute. And it’s time we start asking our elected representatives how they will respond.

—– —– —–

[1] WRI provides a good discussion of what details would be useful: http://www.wri.org/publication/ex-ante-clarification-transparency-and-understanding-intended-nationally-determined.

[2] Great background to the US process, from February of this year: http://www.eenews.net/stories/1059994373.

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