There was U.S. President Joe Biden, at the virtual Earth Day summit that he’s convening, pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. There was European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, pledging a 55-per-cent cut by the same date. There was Britain’s Boris Johnson, vowing a whopping 68-per-cent reduction by 2035.
And there was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, able to offer only 40 per cent minimum, 45 per cent tops, by decade’s end.
As a basic comparison, it looked as though Canada – one of the world’s highest per-capita emitters – was failing to meet the moment of unprecedented ambition to tackle climate change.
But as a matter of what can realistically be achieved in this country, it was an almost staggeringly ambitious commitment. If Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals are serious about it, it will require even tougher policy debates than we have had to date about what is required of Canadians during the transition to a cleaner economy.
The cause for skepticism that Mr. Trudeau’s critics will be keenest to seize on is that Ottawa hasn’t yet succeeded in lowering emissions from 2005, its baseline for the 2030 commitment, at all. (The U.S. also uses a 2005 baseline, while the European and British promises rely on a 1990 one.) Yet it keeps upping the target, from 30 per cent under the Paris Agreement.
That’s not altogether fair. With a quickened pace in their second term, the Liberals have rolled out a series of measures – a rising carbon price, a regulatory framework for lower carbon intensity in fuels, a growing suite of spending programs – that will have a big impact. They don’t quite mean Canada has “effectively 36 per cent in the bank,” as Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson put it in an interview, but that sort of reduction is plausible with these policies.
Getting beyond 40 per cent, though, stands to be at least as challenging for Canada as besting 50 per cent for the U.S. or 60 per cent for Britain, because of a couple of big differences.
The first is that Canada does not have as much low-hanging fruit to pluck, because it already has an unusually clean supply of electricity – something that is becoming easier to achieve elsewhere because renewables are getting cheaper and cheaper.
In the U.S., fossil fuels provide 60 per cent of all power generation, and coal alone nearly 20 per cent, so electricity accounts for 25 per cent of national emissions. Here, only about 18 per cent of generation is from fossil fuels, and about 8 per cent from coal, so the total share of emissions is only about 8 per cent. That’s because some provinces have an abundance of hydroelectricity, and also because others (notably Ontario) were ahead of the game transitioning off coal.
Investment in clean power is still important, especially because electrification of vehicles and buildings will increase demand. But it won’t do as much for 2030 targets as next door or in Europe, where the share of fossil fuels in the power mix is at least double what it is here.
The other big difference, which largely explains why Canada’s per-capita emissions are so high, is that oil-and-gas production is the single biggest contributor to its emissions total, at a whopping 26 per cent as of 2019. That’s a bigger share of emissions than all industries combined in the U.S. And it’s not going to dramatically change overnight, unless Ottawa wants to spark a national unity catastrophe.
So that’s where the questions that are harder here than elsewhere come in. How much can Canada afford to cut pollution from its fossil-fuel sector? What else do we have to do more of, to make up for that industry?
There are some relatively low-pain ways to help reduce resource-sector emissions, which Mr. Wilkinson cited. Those include more stringent rules around methane leaks, around which Mr. Trudeau’s government is hoping to move in lockstep with Mr. Biden’s administration. Supports for carbon capture, including a major tax credit promised in the budget, are clearly a part of Ottawa’s plans, too.
With every passing year, there will also be mounting domestic and international pressure on Canadian governments to eliminate fossil-fuel subsidies – which, while difficult to calculate because of varying definitions, are likely to be in the billions of dollars. But even that wouldn’t necessarily mean huge cuts in production as long as there remains global demand.
The less that resource-sector pollution is cut, the more Canada is going to have to target transportation, which is a close second as an emissions source. The government is pinning its hopes largely on the Biden administration setting stricter fuel-efficiency standards for passenger vehicles, on which Canada typically synchronizes with the U.S. But Ottawa will also have to seriously consider a mandate requiring an increasing share of automakers’ sales to be electric vehicles, and other policies to hasten getting Canadians out of their gas guzzlers. And it’s going to have to do a lot more than it has to tackle emissions from commercial vehicles, which Mr. Wilkinson hinted at.
He also mentioned emissions from residential and commercial buildings as another area with room to achieve more reductions, which may come down to how much money Ottawa is willing to spend on retrofit programs. And he raised heavy industry (for which the federal budget just committed billions of dollars in clean-technology funding) and agriculture (with potential for carbon sequestration).
But these and other sectors could require sticks along with carrots. Manufacturers may need to stop being sheltered as much from carbon pricing through separate industrial systems to protect their international competitiveness (with carbon tariffs potentially instead). Farmers may need to face regulations to get them to change practices such as fertilizer use.
All Canadians, really, may need to embrace being nearer the leading edge of climate transition, because of what we’ve already done on electricity, and aren’t willing or able to do about fossil-fuel production.
That’s not an excuse to reject the sorts of goals that Mr. Trudeau announced on Thursday.
An affluent country with a very large carbon footprint, relative to its size, may just have to work a little harder – and might reap economic benefits from being a leader in the global climate transition if it does. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the scale of ambition, just because other countries are able to claim more eye-popping numbers.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.