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Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)
Jeffrey Simpson (Brigitte Bouvier for The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

Don’t buy the spin on our emissions cutting Add to ...

Governments display this terrible tendency sometimes to stare reality in the face – a reality that informed citizens can clearly see – and either ignore or deny it. Worse, they develop a line of political spin that is at such variance with reality as to be laughable if it were not alarming.

The Harper government is by no means the only culprit in this reality-versus-spin world, but it is certainly among the most ardent practitioners of preferring spin to admitting reality.

To take just one example: The evidence is overwhelming, from the government’s own reports, that Canada will not meet its commitment to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. This looming failure, it should be noted, builds on similar failures by previous Liberal governments that never came close to meeting international commitments they made in Canada’s name.

Despite the government’s own reports, Mr. Harper’s spin machine keeps insisting the government remains on course to meet its 17-per-cent target. We’re halfway there, insist the spin doctors, whereas much of the short-term reduction is linked not to government actions but to the aftermath of the 2008 recession.

But what does reality suggest, based not on studies by others but the government’s own reports?

Recently, the government was obliged to submit Canada’s emissions outlook until 2030 to the United Nations. It was a long, detailed report, the most thorough done in recent years, a credit to those who prepared it and an indispensable document for anyone interested in the issue.

Predictably, because the report contained information the government did not want to receive wide publicity, it was not put on a website, was not accompanied by a press release and would have otherwise been ignored had alert environmentalists not tipped off a few reporters.

It showed – remember these are the government’s own numbers – that whereas the Harperites had promised to reduce emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, Canada was on target for almost no reduction. In absolute terms, Canada was emitting 737 million tonnes in 2005, and is on target for 734 million tonnes in 2020, assuming that no additional measures are taken. Quite likely more will be taken, either by a new federal government or by provinces, but not enough to meet the target of 17 per cent.

(This wrong-way trajectory was noted in the recent U.S. State Department report on the Keystone XL pipeline.)

After 2020, the government had said, Canada would aim for deeper reductions, without putting a precise target in the window. Alas, the report to the UN suggests that rather than falling, Canadian emissions will grow from 737 million tonnes in 2005 to 815 million tonnes in 2030.

What is happening to make for failure? Ontario’s coal-fired plants are being phased out – the single biggest action to reduce emissions in Canada (31.6 million tonnes). Canada and the U.S. signed an emission-reduction agreement for cars and trucks that will help. British Columbia has a carbon tax; Alberta an intensity-based tax; Ottawa and the provinces offer a variety of clean-energy subsidies; businesses are becoming more energy efficient, and so on.

Lots is happening. But all these actions are being negated more than anything else by soaring emissions from the oil-and-gas sector, notably bitumen oil.

Again, the government’s own numbers tell the story, or a large part of it. From 2005 to 2030, Canada’s overall emissions are expected to increases by 78 million tonnes, almost the same increase as is expected from the oil-and-gas sector: 79 million tonnes.

Since the bitumen is primarily located in Alberta, it’s not surprising that the Harper government’s numbers show emissions jumping by nearly 100 million tonnes in that province from 2005 to 2030. That’s more than the increase for the entire country, where emissions are expected to hold steady or shrink elsewhere, except between 2020 and 2030 in British Columbia.

As long as bitumen emissions grow as expected, no matter what happens in other sectors or other parts of Canada, by the Harper government’s own numbers there is no chance of meeting the government’s targets for 2020 and beyond. And that is reality, not spin.

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