Canada is falling well short of its international commitment to reduce greenhouse gases and the Harper government is offering no plan to close the gap.
In an update released Thursday, Environment Canada projects that rising emissions from a booming oil-sands sector will swamp progress made elsewhere and, without tough new actions, will fail to meet the target set by Prime Minister Stephen Harper at an United Nations climate summit in 2009.
After six years of falling emissions – due in part to the recession – the government expects this country's production of climate-changing gases to grow over the next several years, to a level in 2020 that is 20 per cent above Ottawa's target of 612 megatonnes of carbon dioxide and is virtually unchanged from 2005 levels.
At the Copenhagen summit, Mr. Harper committed Canada to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020 – a goal that mirrored the one adopted by U.S. President Barack Obama.
The Environment Canada report comes at a delicate time for the Conservative government.
Mr. Obama has signalled that Canada must do more to rein in emissions from the oil sands to win American approval for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would carry diluted bitumen from Alberta to the major refining hub on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. U.S. emissions have fallen substantially since peaking in 2007, and the administration says it is on track to meet its own international commitments with the climate plans that Mr. Obama announced this summer.
As well, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq will travel to Warsaw for an annual United Nations summit on climate change, as countries push for a new accord by 2015 that would replace the Kyoto Protocol and require all governments to achieve greater emission reduction after 2020.
In the House of Commons, Ms. Aglukkaq defended the Conservative government's climate record, but gave no indication how Ottawa intends to close the yawning gap between its projected 2020 emissions level and the government's own commitment.
"Our government is taking action to address climate change," she said.
"We introduced world-leading coal power regulations and harmonized with the United States on vehicle emissions regulations – and we are getting results."
Ms. Aglukkaq was silent on the 2020 target and did not comment outside the Commons, but an Environment Canada spokeswoman said the government "is committed to achieving Canada's target and our leadership, our actions, and our investments prove this."
But critics complain Canada is headed in the wrong direction, with projections for growing emissions and no stated plan to prevent the increase.
"It's time for the Harper government to change this picture before it's too late. The most crucial component of a credible plan to get Canada back on track is strong regulations for the oil and gas sector," said P.J. Partington, an analyst at the Pembina Institute.
In the assessment released Thursday, Ottawa projects that emissions from the oil and gas sector will grow by 38 megatonnes between 2005 and 2020, negating the progress made by Ottawa and several provinces to reduce GHGs in the electricity sector by moving away from coal-fired power.
The federal government has promised to introduce new regulations on the oil and gas sector, but it's unclear when Ottawa will release the proposals or how effective they will be in driving down emissions. Environment Canada projects that oil-sands production will grow from 1.1 million barrels per day to 3.3 million in 2020.