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In depth
| 12/13/16

Commentary: Canada’s slow shuffle forward on climate action  

Sybil Seitzinger


Action on climate in Canada had seen an encouraging upswing in recent months, but Ottawa’s failure to secure a true pan-Canadian deal on clean growth and climate change, due to Saskatchewan and Manitoba not signing, is disappointing. But given Canada’s patchwork of provincial and territorial climate and energy policies—as well as resistance to change from some—agreement was always going to be hard fought, despite tremendous work behind the scenes.

Leading up to the First Ministers’ meeting yesterday were announcements of intended federal policies that would help cut carbon pollution across most sectors – including an accelerated phase-out of coal-fired electricity, a new low-carbon fuel standard, and a national carbon price which seems to be the most contentious.

From a climate perspective, these gains for climate change mitigation should also be weighed against recent federal decisions to support expansion in the fossil fuel sectors – specifically, a liquefied natural gas project in British Columbia and a pair of pipelines taking petroleum from Alberta’s oil sands region to the BC coast and Wisconsin. While most of the emissions from these export products would be on other jurisdictions’ carbon tallies, in a global sense, it all counts.

Closer to home, British Columbia’s mix of climate and economic policies tell a similar story. In August I accepted the invitation to speak at the launch of the BC government’s Climate Leadership Plan (CLP). In my speech I welcomed the 21 new actions outlined in the plan that will hit all the major sources of emissions in this province. I also noted that the CLP—which is the first of several planned announcements by the province—would not take us even half way toward meeting BC’s legislated emissions target of 12.6 Mt carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) per year by 2050.

navius-1Fast-forward to December, and I can now put firmer numbers on the extent of the challenge before us. In partnership with the Pembina Institute and Clean Energy Canada, PICS has released an independent assessment of BC’s Climate Leadership Plan and Federal Carbon Price on BC’s greenhouse gas emissions.

After crunching the numbers, we now know that the CLP will take British Columbia only about one third of the way towards meeting that 2050 target. The modelling shows that if the government does not take any new climate action, emissions will clock in at about 76 Mt by the middle of the century, up from around 60 Mt today, largely due to planned expansion within BC’s natural gas sector. The policies in the CLP will cut these annual emissions back down to 54 Mt, but it is still well short of the goal, which is 12.6 Mt.


This new report is useful for policy and decision makers, as well as of interest to the public, because it highlights the extent of the gap – 41 Mt gap – that we have to address. The report also helps identify where additional opportunities lie within individual sectors for more emissions reductions.

Stronger policies to decarbonize industry, transport and the built environment, and to reduce emissions from natural gas are needed to bridge that gap. PICS and its partners are committed to supporting the BC government’s development and implementation of those next steps.

Amidst all this effort, it is important to remind ourselves of why it is crucial that we redefine our energy use towards a low-carbon future.

Nearly 200 countries, including Canada, signed the UN’s Paris Agreement to limit global average temperature rise to well below 2°C (above pre-industrial levels), to prevent some of the most dangerous effects of climate change. The current set of pledges to lower emissions made by the signatories, if adhered to, would likely result in 3.7°C of warming by the end of the century.

Clearly, more ambitious reductions are needed. In fact, globally we need to reach net zero emissions by around 2070 to stay below the threshold, according to essentially all the climate models.

Both British Columbia and Canada have 2050 emissions targets of 80% below their respective 2007 and 2005 levels – the latter being announced (but not yet legislated) as Canada’s “Mid-Century Strategy” at the 2016 UN climate summit in Marrakech. But the evidence shows, the end goal must be net zero.

As 2016 burns through the heat records to become the hottest year in the modern temperature record, which dates back to 1880, the time for accelerated climate action is now. Action at all levels, municipal, provincial, national and international, will collectively define our future global climate.


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