The Harper government is committing Canada to reduce its carbon emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, but offers no plan to rein in the country's fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases – the oil sands.
The 2030 emissions target was submitted to the United Nations on Friday as part of preparations for a summit to be held in Paris in December where nations aim to conclude a global climate agreement to avert the worst impact of global warming.
Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced the national commitment in Winnipeg on Friday, along with plans to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions (GHG) in three new sectors.
Environment Canada plans to match proposed U.S. regulations to target methane releases that occur primarily in drilling and hydraulic fracturing – fracking – for unconventional oil and natural gas. Ottawa will also target emissions from natural-gas-fired power plants, and among manufacturers who produce chemicals and nitrogen fertilizers.
Conspicuously absent from that list is the oil sands, despite promises as recently as two years ago that Ottawa would impose regulations in the sector. Instead, Ottawa merely said it would invest in technology to improve the environmental performance of the oil sands.
The 2030 target falls short of the pledge made by President Barack Obama that would see the United States cut its GHG emissions by 26 to 28 per cent from 2005 levels by 2025. Ottawa's plan translates to a 23.5-per-cent reduction in that year.
"Canada's ambitious new target and planned regulatory actions underscore our continued commitment to cut emissions at home," Ms. Aglukkaq said. She pledged to "work with our international partners to establish an international agreement in Paris that includes meaningful and transparent commitments from all major emitters."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper indicated recently that Canada would not match American targets for 2025. The U.S. can achieve emissions reductions more cheaply than Canada because there is huge opportunity for American utilities to shift from coal-fired power to lower-carbon sources like cheap natural gas. In Canada, 79 per cent of electricity already comes from non-GHG-emitting sources like hydro, nuclear and renewable energy.
Ottawa's 2030 commitments are being greeted with considerable skepticism.
Mr. Harper pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Protocol when it became clear the country was failing to meet its 2012 target. And Environment Canada has indicated the country is not on track to meet Mr. Harper's commitment – made at the Copenhagen summit in 2009 – to reduce GHGs by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. The federal submission to the United Nations made no mention of that 2020 target.
"I'm not confident that [the 2030] promise will be able to be kept, and in fact I'm confident that they have no intention of meeting that target," New Democratic Party deputy leader Megan Leslie said in Ottawa.
"Let's look at the last targets they set. We're not even halfway there. I almost feel like asking why bother on their part. Where's the plan?"
Environmentalists complained the targets are significantly behind those set by the U.S., and that the strategy includes some questionable tactics such as ignoring emissions growth in the oil sands and assigning a value for potential of the country's forests to reduce carbon-dioxide concentrations in the air.
The federal government has reversed course in one area by acknowledging that there may be a need to purchase foreign offsets to meet its goals. The Conservatives had previously condemned any suggestion that the country would finance emissions reductions in other countries to claim credit against the Canadian targets.
Despite low crude prices, oil-sands production – and hence carbon emissions – continues to represent the fastest-growing source of emissions. However, the industry has cancelled or delayed more than a dozen major projects in light of the price slump, a trend which would reduce the emissions growth rate in a few years when those projects would have come on stream.
Mr. Harper has refused to impose tougher emissions standards in the oil sands, saying it would be "crazy" to add new burdens on producers at a time of low prices, particularly since the U.S. has no plans to impose such a regulatory burden on its industry.
Alberta has its own regulations, which set per-barrel limits and a $15 a tonne levy on emissions that exceed those limits. Those regulations expire at the end of June and the province's incoming New Democratic Party government must decide how to proceed.
Overall, the federal government told the UN that Canada's GHG emissions were 3.1-per-cent lower in 2013 than in 2005. But the big reductions came during the recession. Between 2009 and 2013, emissions rose by 4 per cent.
While dragging its feet on the oil industry, Ottawa has passed a regulation in the electricity sector which would phase out traditional coal-fired power plants. That rule will increasingly bite after 2020, as aging plants reach the end of their commercial life.
Now, the federal government plans to impose regulations on the natural-gas-fired plants, which are used either to replace coal, or to back up intermittent renewable electricity like wind and solar.
Ms. Aglukkaq is also announcing that Ottawa will match U.S. plans to regulate methane emissions in the oil and gas sector. That's a particular concern in the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – that is used to extract natural gas and crude from shale rock.
Environmental economist David Sawyer noted that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's proposed methane regulations would place a burden on the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. industry, the shale-gas and shale-oil producers.
The Canadian industry welcomes the federal decision to match EPA methane standards, said Alex Ferguson, vice-president for policy at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. Mr. Ferguson said provincial governments already have stricter rules for methane capture than do American jurisdictions.