Skip to main content

Oil-sands workers operate a rig near Fort McMurray, Alta., in September of 2010.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Canada is facing a yawning shortfall in its commitment to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and both Ottawa and the provinces will have to embrace far more aggressive measures to meet their targets, the federally-appointed National Roundtable on the Economy and Environment says in a new report.

In a report prepared at the request of Environment Minister Peter Kent, the agency said Ottawa and Alberta will have to dramatically rein in emissions from the fast-growing oil industry as part of a national climate strategy.

It singled out the Alberta-based oil sector as a key contributor to growing emissions – and therefore a major part of the solution – and suggested governments will need to force the industry to adopt some high-cost solutions, such as carbon capture and storage.

The Harper government has ended funding for the roundtable, with Mr. Kent arguing its work can be done elsewhere. However, in a letter requesting the study last year, the Environment Minister said the independent advisory group was "in a unique position to advise the federal government on sustainable development solutions."

The decision to eliminate the group, which brings together business, environmentalists and academics, has been roundly criticized as an example of the Conservative government's unwillingness to hear challenging messages from federally-funded organizations.

Former Conservative MP Bob Mills – who served as chair of the Commons environment committee and is now a roundtable appointee – said last week that Prime Minister Stephen Harper's approach to the environment is "disappointing" and has given Canada a black eye internationally.

Mr. Kent has long insisted Ottawa has a plan to meet the commitment to the United Nations that Canada would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020, as countries seek to limit global warming to no more than two degrees.

But roundtable executive director David McLaughlin said neither the federal government nor the provinces have produced a plan to close the emissions gap. "We can still reach the targets if we do some really heavy lifting, but as time goes by, the lifting gets heavier," he said.

The Conservative government's 2020 emissions goal is in line with the one proposed by U.S. President Barack Obama. But it is well short of what the former Liberal government promised under the Kyoto Protocol, or what environmentalists say is needed to show leadership in the international battle to slow global warming.

And governments are falling short even with that less ambitious goal. Federal and provincial measures either enacted or proposed to date would achieve less than half the emission reductions required to meet the 2020 target, the roundtable said.

Ottawa is also trailing the provinces in making progress, with policies that will produce only half the gains that will result from by provincial action by 2020.

"The analysis shows that Canada's 2020 target is a challenging goal that will require significant and more stringent policies to drive increasingly high cost reductions," said the report, to be formally released Wednesday.

"A gradual process of trying to capture only the lowest cost emission reductions will not be successful."

To achieve the goal, Ottawa and the provinces will have to work together more closely – either in a single national climate strategy or at least in a more closely co-ordinated approach, the report said. "Neither approach current exists in Canada," it added.

But a spokesman from Mr. Kent said the government is "pleased" with progress and is planning other initiatives, including regulations on industrial sectors like the oil sands, that will get it to the target.

"We are the first federal government to take action on reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions," Adam Sweet said in an e-mailed statement. "Our government is focused on a realistic approach to GHG regulations that will reduce emissions, while continuing to create jobs and encourage the growth of the Canadian economy."

The federal government has announced a patchwork of policies aimed at reducing emissions, including increased vehicle mileage regulations, some modest initiatives to encourage energy efficiency and use of biofuels, and regulations to force the power sector to reduce emissions from coal-fired plants over the longer term.

Ottawa has promised further regulations aimed by major emitting industries, including the oil and gas industry. But the government is not expected to introduce its draft rules before the end of this year, and they will take more several years to have an impact.

Provincial government have a hodgepodge of policies, including a carbon tax in British Columbia, regulations on oil industry emissions in Alberta, and Ontario's plan to phase out coal-fired electricity by 2014.

But the roundtable said none of the provinces are on track to meet their own targets, and will have to introduce new and costly measures to get there.