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Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)
Headshot of Jeffrey Simpson. (Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier/For The Globe and Mail)

Jeffrey Simpson

Ottawa kills the emissions messenger Add to ...

About a year ago, Environment Minister Peter Kent asked a government agency for help.

In a letter to the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE), Mr. Kent said it was in a “unique position” to offer advice on sustainable development. The government had asked the NRTEE in the past to “conduct research and provide advice on key and emerging issues.” Now, Mr. Kent was asking the NRTEE, with its “unique position,” to conduct a comprehensive review of provincial climate-change plans.

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A year after the request and the nice comments about the NRTEE’s past work, however, the Harper government killed the agency in the 2012 budget.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird lashed out at the NRTEE, saying it had repeatedly called for a carbon tax that Canadians had rejected. That statement, typically partisan given the source, was completely false. No matter, the Harper government killed the agency, quite likely because it isn’t much interested in sustainable development.

The NRTEE goes out of business next March, but it did complete the assignment it was given by Mr. Kent. Its report, released last week – the most comprehensive study of where Canada is at in reducing greenhouse gas emissions – suggests why the Harper government wanted to close it.

The report shows that Canada is nowhere near on target to meet the Harper government’s own goal of reducing emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. It’s another reason why Mr. Kent should hide under the table at this week’s Rio+20 Earth summit.

The NRTEE study concluded that, with only eight years remaining until 2020, “Canada is currently on track to achieve just under half of the emissions reductions required to meet its 2020 target.” Among the provinces, only Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan are likely to meet their self-imposed targets.

Nationally, the numbers are easy to understand. If Canada had done nothing, emissions would have risen to 828-million tonnes by 2020. The existing measures, largely taken by provinces (which control natural resources), will bring emissions to 724-million tonnes. To reach the Harper government’s goal for Canada, they must fall to 607-million tonnes. It can’t be done with existing policies, so once again it appears that a Canadian government will establish targets for the country, then fail to achieve them – as Liberal governments did before the Conservatives came to office.

As expected, the two big fossil-fuel-producing provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta are Nos. 1 and 2 per capita in emissions. For total emissions, however, Alberta dwarfs the others. It’s the only province whose emissions are scheduled to grow by 2020 – which, if it happens, would ensure that the country will fail to meet the Harper government’s targets.

Ontario, by contrast, is the second-highest for total emissions but the second-lowest in per capita emissions.

For what seems like forever, the government has been promising regulations on the oil and gas industry to reduce emissions. (It has already published regulations for new coal-fired plants and those past the end of their “useful life.”) Predictably, the oil and gas industry has been lobbying like mad, and the regulations have been repeatedly delayed. In addition, one of the four carbon capture and sequestration projects on which Alberta and Ottawa were pinning such hopes for reducing emissions was recently scrapped. (Carbon capture, by the way, is an exceptionally expensive per-tonne way of reducing emissions, although with improved technology, the cost might be reduced.)

Apart from the coal regulations, Ottawa’s only other bold move – and it’s a very good one – is to move with the United States for much tougher fuel efficiency standards for cars and heavy-duty trucks. When fully implemented, these will have a major and positive impact on the environment.

The rest of Ottawa’s measures are puny. Several are dopey in that they cost a lot and do little because they were driven by politics rather than strong policy – the public transit tax credit and subsidies for ethanol, for example.

The NRTEE’s “unique position” did not save the doomed non-partisan agency, whose president used to be Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s chief of staff. As a parting shot, it offered Canadians the clearest report yet on where the country stands – namely, falling short of yet another target.

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