A group of climate scientists is calling for Ottawa to take dramatic steps to curb emissions, including halting the advance of the oil sands while it weighs new greenhouse gas regulations for the energy sector.
Canada's climate performance has come under renewed scrutiny as other major powers consider new regulatory measures. Last week, state media reported that China intends to introduce a modest carbon tax, while the White House and U.S. State Department have signalled a renewed focus on greenhouse gas legislation. At the same time, observers believe new Canadian regulations and progress on climate change would give the Obama administration political cover to approve the Keystone XL pipeline project.
Such moves are unlikely to be politically appealing to a Canadian government long opposed to carbon taxes. Gary Doer, Canada's ambassador to the U.S., told Reuters Friday that there is little more Canada can do on the climate file to appease American concerns.
But scientists, who plan to issue a plea for action on Monday alongside prominent environmental advocates Bill McKibben and Tzeporah Berman, call the country's current greenhouse gas policy insufficient. Major change, they say, is needed if Canada is to meet its goal of reducing emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.
"The Canadian government has no credible plan for stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions, much less reducing them," Danny Harvey, a University of Toronto climate scientist, said in a statement. He called for "across-the-board deep reductions" in emissions, and said "continued expansion of the oil sands operations runs counter to this imperative."
Mark Jaccard, an economist at Simon Fraser University who has studied climate issues, said Ottawa needs policies that a "credible independent analyst would say would achieve your 2020 promise. Why are you making that promise otherwise?"
Last August, Ottawa said the country was half-way toward meetings its emission reductions targets, and the government maintains that new oil and gas regulations, delayed but due some time this year, will help the country meet its 2020 goal.
"The government has made that commitment and intends to meet it," said Rob Taylor, spokesman for Environment Minister Peter Kent. He added: "We are striking a balance between the ability to deliver real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions without causing a major disruption to the Canadian economy."
Ottawa has brought in regulations to phase out traditional coal plants after 2020, boosted fuel efficiency requirements for cars and trucks and supported biofuels and carbon capture and storage.
But the scientists countered with an analysis that suggests per-barrel emissions in the oil sands are rising, while government documents project Canada will be 18.6 per cent over its emissions target in 2020. Canada, they said, is the 58th worst out of 61 countries on climate performance. Alberta's much-touted carbon tax on large emitters has exacted such little cost that it has been ineffective in reducing emissions, they said.
Even the dip in national emissions was likely temporary, a product of poor economic circumstances that is unlikely to persist, Mr. Jaccard said.
There remains little consensus on what steps Canada should take. John Abraham, a professor of engineering at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., recommends a "cap and dividend" program, essentially a carbon tax whose revenues are returned to the population in regular rebate cheques. Mr. Jaccard, however, says California's experience has shown cap-and-trade programs, which are somewhat similar, have a limited effect.
"Cap and trade in California will maybe contribute five per cent of meeting their promises" on emissions reduction, he said. "The other 95 per cent is with regulation."
He suggested Canada pursue clean electricity rules, California-style vehicle emission regulations, a low-carbon fuel standard and strict caps on industrial emissions.
The more pressing problem for Canada, in particular with the Keystone XL pipeline, is that it has an image problem – one that more action could help to repair, said Steven Phillips, director of carbon strategy group at Washington-based PFC Energy, a political risk firm.
"It's definitely a P.R. campaign at this point," Mr. Phillips said in a telephone interview. "It's not going to be easy to digest among the environmentalists here in the U.S. but it would be something to justify the decision to the more moderate part of his constituency.
"But it has to be done soon if they wish to alleviate any of the climate concerns that the Obama administration will weigh as it decides on Keystone XL."