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Plumes of smoke rise from an oil-sands upgrader facility north of Fort McMurray, Alta.KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/The Globe and Mail

Canada's greenhouse gas emissions will rise sharply after 2020 unless there are dramatic efforts to rein in emissions from the oil and gas sector, the Harper government indicates in a new report to the United Nations.

The document was submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in late December with no announcement or press release. As it was being filed, Prime Minister Stephen Harper signalled his government was delaying for as long as two years the release of long-promised regulations to reduce emissions from the booming oil-sands sector.

The report to the UN gives no indication of how Ottawa plans to meet a commitment Mr. Harper made at the Copenhagen summit in 2009 that Canada would reduce its emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020. Instead, it talks vaguely about new regulations in its "sector-by-sector" approach, while adding that provinces, businesses and consumers also have a responsibility to address climate change.

In contrast, U.S. President Barack Obama laid out a plan last summer – including regulations on new and existing coal-fired power plants – that would largely meet the U.S. 2020 commitment, which is the same as Canada's.

"We don't know yet whether the U.S. will hit its 2020 targets, but we do know they take it seriously and they're designing an approach that gives them a real shot at meeting the goal," P.J. Partington, director of federal policy for the Calgary-based Pembina Institute, said on Wednesday. "Clearly, [Ottawa] is not making an attempt to show how we're going to get on track to meet the same target."

The documents show that, without further policy action, Canada's emissions would be 734 megatonnes by 2020, or 20 per cent higher than the target of 612 megatonnes.

As part of a UN-led effort to reach a global treaty by 2015, the federal government is expected this year to announce an emission-reduction target for 2030 that would be significantly lower than 2020 levels. Without new measures, the government forecasts emissions in 2030 would be 815 megatonnes, or 33 per cent higher than its current 2020 target. All countries that committed to reducing emissions file annual reports on their progress with the UN.

A spokeswoman for Environment Canada said the government has made progress, but offered no commitment to meet 2020 targets. She said Ottawa will introduce regulations for oil and gas producers and other large industrial emitters and natural-gas-fired power plants.

"The government of Canada is committed to addressing GHG emissions while keeping the Canadian economy strong," Environment Canada's Jirina Vlk said in an e-mail. Its approach "allows us to protect both our environment and our economy."

U.S. environmental groups will doubtless seize on the Canadian projections to ratchet up pressure on Mr. Obama to reject TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL pipeline proposal. The President has said the project's impact on GHG emissions would be a key factor in his long-delayed decision.

Backed by a State Department report, the Canadian government argued a decision on the pipeline will have no impact on emissions because the crude would find a way to market with or without it. That conclusion has been widely challenged and the U.S. administration has sent clear signals it wants progress on oil sands' emissions.

Without the climate regulations, the government forecasts that emissions from the oil and gas sector will soar by 23 per cent between 2005 and 2020, and by 48 per cent by 2030, swamping progress in other sectors. Fuelled by oil sands growth, Alberta's emissions are projected to increase by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2030, while Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick would all see declines.

In its report, the federal government noted Canada has made progress, despite having one of the fastest growing populations in the developed world, among the best economic performances and a reliance on the resource sector. Its GHG emissions per capita are at the lowest level since tracking began in 1990, and while the economy has grown by 8.4 per cent since 2005, emissions have fallen by 4.8 per cent.

With a growing economy, meeting the 2020 target is "challenging," Ottawa told the UN body.

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