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David Knight Legg is an adviser to global banking, investment and technology firms in Asia and the United States. He is the former chair of the Alberta government’s ESG working group and was principal adviser to former premier Jason Kenney.

At this year’s UN climate conference in Cairo, Canada avoided mentioning one inconvenient truth: We keep making climate promises we can’t keep.

From 2005 to 2019, our last normal economic year, we reduced our national emissions by less than 1 per cent – around two million tonnes – toward our goal of cutting emissions by 40 per cent to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. By contrast, the United States reduced their emissions by more than 800 million tonnes in the same time period.

Why is Canada such an emissions failure? It is not for lack of political ambition. There is unlikely to be a federal government more committed to climate action than this one. The failure is with our strategy: using domestic political emissions targets to try to address global emissions.

First, Canada’s domestic targets don’t make a difference. The 98.6 per cent of global emissions that occur outside Canada have rocketed up by 34 per cent in two decades. Domestic emissions have been flat, so our share of global emissions dropped from 2 per cent to 1.4 per cent only because the world burns more, especially coal, every year.

Proportionally, the increase in one year of emissions from coal use in China is, by itself, larger than Canada’s most aggressive 25-year domestic reduction target. A domestic-only mindset is hopelessly incapable of making a difference to global emissions.

Second, our domestic targets were political, miscalculating key national and scientific realities. Canada is missing targets badly because our vast geography, northern climate, clean grid and small population make our domestic cuts far harder than those of Europe or the U.S. Their targets reflected vast, dirty coal-fired grids they could decarbonize over 20 years. We didn’t have those.

China, the worst polluter, has not set a particular target, but rather says it will attempt to have emissions peak in 2030, after which they hope to begin reducing them. Our national strategy needs to acknowledge – and leverage – our unique comparative global strengths and weaknesses.

Third, this domestic-targets approach tends to move emissions offshore instead of cutting them. Canada has an outsized global resources sector that features more oil than Russia, China and the United States combined and the fifth-largest gas production on the planet. This sector serves the world, not just Canada.

Energy is a global commodity with multiple points of production – and all emissions are global and borderless. Federal climate policy that attacks Canada’s domestic energy production in the name of global emissions is self-defeating. Other nations quickly take up the production Canada loses to uncompetitive tax, regulatory or climate policies. This doesn’t cut emissions; they are just generated somewhere else.

Canada can do better. If we replace this failing domestic-targets strategy with a global one, Canada can become net zero in 10 years. We have the resources and trading capacity to remove far more global emissions around the world than our entire national carbon footprint by helping coal-dependent nations with huge populations decarbonize.

In the past two decades, global emissions have risen by more than a third. China alone is responsible for more than 60 per cent of that global increase. It now accounts for more than half of all global coal consumption and more than 27 per cent of all global emissions.

In the same period, successful technologies for decarbonization have also evolved. The most successful of these is the transition of coal-fired electrical grids to natural gas. Because gas creates half the carbon emissions per unit of energy compared with coal, this drives a 40-per-cent reduction. This is the principal source of the huge reductions in the U.S. and Europe, removing more than 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon from the planet.

Canada has vast amounts of clean natural gas and direct Pacific trade routes to Asia, where 60 per cent of the world’s population lives and where coal emissions growth is the fastest. An initial analysis I was involved with that looked at retrofitting Canadian gas into just 15 per cent of China’s coal-fired grid showed that Canada could replicate through trade exactly what the U.S. did domestically, using gas to permanently remove several hundred million tonnes of coal emissions annually.

Just one partnership of this scale would make Canada net zero. Add other developing nations – as well as our advancing hydrogen, carbon tech and nuclear sectors – and it is possible for Canada to vastly exceed net zero.

For context, global emissions have grown fastest in Asia for two decades because of their extraordinary success in moving more than a billion people from grinding poverty into the middle class. Asian nations aren’t using coal because they hate the environment, but because they are expanding cities and grids to accommodate another two billion people out of poverty in the next 30 years.

This is a challenge, but it is also a massive environmental, commercial and diplomatic opportunity for Canada to make a difference in the world. It’s time to look beyond our borders. Our national climate strategy isn’t missing emissions targets because they’re too big, but because our global ambition is too small.

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