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A dump truck works near the Syncrude oil sands extraction facility near the city of Fort McMurray, Alta.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

What is the social cost of rising greenhouse gas emissions?

In 2020, it was thought that every tonne of CO2 disgorged into the atmosphere took $54 out of the pocket of every Canadian. But last week, federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, attending the Net Zero Leadership Summit, said new government data suggest that number was actually much greater in 2020. Try $247 per tonne of CO2 – or five times higher than the original estimate. This year, it’s estimated to be $261 per tonne, and expected to rise to $294 by 2030.

The social cost of carbon is not a new metric. It’s been around for a while and is a widely accepted tool for measuring the societal costs of rising greenhouse gas emissions in the form of fires, floods and an array of other consequences linked to rising temperatures. If nothing else, it drives home the fact that not addressing climate change is more expensive than we likely ever imagined.

You would hope that the updated information would drive a serious discussion in Canada. Get the attention of our political leaders and prompt some of the climate dawdlers into action. But that would be asking too much. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe’s reaction was to use the new information Mr. Guilbeault shared on Twitter to try and score cheap political points. “Is this not just a 5X higher carbon tax?” Mr. Moe tweeted out.

Yes, get the citizenry all riled up over a potential hike to the carbon tax that the Environment Minister wasn’t suggesting at all. The Premier could have easily done some back-channel investigating to assure himself that Mr. Guilbeault wasn’t talking about raising the carbon tax. But he decided it was better to throw a grenade out there and maybe have a good chuckle about it afterward.

If you’re a Canadian who cares about the state of the planet and the efforts being made by this country to do something about it, you have to be incredibly depressed right now. We are an embarrassing laggard when it comes to meeting the critical climate challenge we face. And, in part, it’s because of political leaders (like Mr. Moe) who haven’t shown any real interest in the subject.

New research from Carleton University, the CBC noted in February, indicates that heavy oil facilities in Mr. Moe’s province are releasing four times the amount of methane gas as they report to the government. Four times. Methane is considered by many experts to be 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Meantime, next door in Alberta, the United Conservative Party government recently released its own emissions plan based on the notion that it is best placed to introduce policies to cut greenhouse gases – not Ottawa.

And what a plan it is. Its final goal is to create a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. But as my colleague Carrie Tait brilliantly summarized in her report on the blueprint, it “depends on technology that is not yet viable, regulations that do not yet exist and interim targets that have not yet been set.” In other words, it’s a joke. But then, so is the federal government’s pledge to reduce emissions in Canada to net zero by 2050, and cut greenhouse gases by 40 to 45 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. No one is being honest here.

Emissions from oil and gas production account for 28 per cent of Canada’s total – the single largest contributor to the country’s overall output, and it’s still growing. There is no way we are going to meet our net zero ambitions as long as we have a thriving oil and gas sector. In 2021, the oil sands recorded their highest greenhouse gas emissions ever. Mazel tov!

Meantime, federal Conservative Party Leader Pierre Poilievre is talking about scrapping the carbon tax and building more pipelines.

Mr. Guilbeault recently released the 2023 National Inventory Report on greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. To meet our 2030 milestone, we’d have to reduce emissions by 231 million tonnes. That is an absolutely mountainous hill to climb in seven short years, with no real way to get there as long as our oil and gas sector is pumping out CO2 at the rate it is.

A couple of years ago, the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Jerry DeMarco, noted that the country (and successive federal governments) had failed to produce any meaningful reductions in CO2 emissions in 30 years. It’s now clear the political leadership in Canada isn’t serious enough to meet the climate challenge before us. Much like Canada’s spending commitment to NATO that likely won’t ever be met, neither will the promise we made to the world to clean up our act.

The uncomfortable truth is this: Canada doesn’t care enough to make the sacrifices we need to, in the name of saving our planet.

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