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Steam spews from the stacks of a Toronto natural-gas-fired power station in January of 2012.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Delays in regulating greenhouse-gas emissions mean Canada is quickly locking in old-fashioned infrastructure that will fill the air with carbon for decades to come, new research shows.

The longer the federal government waits to clamp down on emissions and business continues as usual, the more difficult and costly it becomes to meet environmental targets, the research concludes.

These findings come from the soon-to-be-defunct National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, the federally funded advisory group formed to give advice and research on sustainable development.

The Harper government is in the process of abolishing the agency.

It's likely the first time analysts have measured the country's shrinking room to manoeuvre as a result of investments made while businesses wait for governments to crack down on emissions.

The research also shows that electricity could be the salvation, as long as that sector can attract huge investment.

The research will be included in one of the advisory body's final reports to be published in a few weeks, but was presented by the round table's president, David McLaughlin, at a conference earlier this month. His slide presentation was obtained by The Canadian Press.

"We have said consistently that delay is costly," Mr. McLaughlin said. Now, he says, the research shows just how costly.

His charts and graphs show that as Ottawa waits to implement regulations on emitters, investment in coal, oil, gas, electricity and buildings will be guided by the high-emission standards which have been the norm.

The effects could be felt for decades, since the life-span of much infrastructure is about 40 years – compounding the stock of emissions already in the atmosphere.

So any infrastructure built after the new regulations eventually come into place will have to be extra-efficient in order to make up for the delays of the past, Mr. McLaughlin said.

"The more and more of those [locked-in]investments that are made, the less and less options [governments]have for actually finding emissions reductions in the economy," explained Alex Wood, senior director at Sustainable Prosperity, the think-tank that hosted the conference where Mr. McLaughlin presented his findings.

"And with less and less options available, they become more expensive."

The International Energy Agency has been sounding the alarm about locked-in global emissions for months now. In its November report, the IEA warned that on world scale, it will be impossible to meet climate-change targets unless radical changes are undertaken in the next five years.

The IEA said the world has a difficult task in limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius because existing infrastructure already produces 80 per cent of the carbon that would be consistent with such a target. That leaves little room to do anything else.

Canada faces a similar conundrum, the Round Table research shows.

There is a growing consensus that Ottawa's regulatory approach is moving too slowly to meet the government's 2020 target to reduce emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels. Last week, the federal environment commissioner's audit of the government's regulations confirmed that reaching the target would be "unlikely."

So far, Ottawa's regulations have tackled just one sector out of eight.

So the Round Table research focuses on how Canada can meet its 2050 targets instead. Canada and other G8 countries have committed to cutting emissions to 65 per cent below 2005 levels by that year.

It's possible that Canada could meet this target, Mr. McLaughlin said, but the longer Ottawa waits to put a clear price on carbon, the harder and more costly it will be.

The lack of clear details on what the federal government will expect has already caused casualties, added Wood.

Two major, emissions-friendly developments have recently collapsed, mainly because Ottawa has not put forward enough information about how its carbon regime will function, Mr. Wood said.

Investors pulled out of the Pioneer carbon-capture and storage project in Alberta, despite having $779 million in federal and provincial subsidies. Ottawa-based Iogen cancelled plans for a biofuel plant in Manitoba.

Mr. McLaughlin sees hope in electricity.

He says his research shows it will take massive investment – up to $16-billion annually – to meet the 2050 target. That money would be in addition to what is already invested in the carbon-producing sectors of Canada's economy.

Most of that would have to be in electricity, especially in hydro. His presentation showed that to meet the 2050 target, current investment of $12-billion a year in electricity would have to double.

But in order to attract that kind of money, Mr. McLaughlin said governments need to issue "strong, sustained, properly oriented price signals" that give policy certainty to investors.