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When the Trudeau government put out its latest plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions in March, this page was both positive and skeptical.

Positive because, unlike failed climate plans of the past, we said Ottawa’s suite of policies this time round could succeed – up to a point. Skeptical because, could Canada really get all the way to the Liberals’ big 2030 emission reductions target? This page said: “Likely not.”

A primary challenge is the oil and gas industry – responsible for about one-quarter of the country’s GHGs. And to hit its targets, the March plan relied heavily on massive and swift reductions in oil and gas emissions. The reductions, as pictured by Ottawa, depend on transforming Canada’s relatively dirty oil into much lower-carbon barrels, without reducing oil production. Technology as saviour, and salvation arriving in less than a decade. This page described that as “difficult.”

How little time there is – 2030 is eight years away – matters.

This has come to light in confidential federal documents obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The Liberal government insists its 2030 goal is “doable,” but some of Ottawa’s own research suggests otherwise. The March plan stated the oil and gas industry could cut 81 megatonnes of annual emissions. That’s 40 per cent below 2019 levels of 203 MT. But officials in the Natural Resources and Environment departments say a more “technically feasible” target for 2030 is 43 MT – still a big cut, but only a bit more than half what the Liberals have been promising.

The government’s internal analysis further finds that even reaching the lower figure will call for “extraordinary efforts.” New technology such as carbon capture is dubbed “high risk,” because it’s relatively new. The Liberals’ April budget offered industry $7.1-billion in subsidies through to 2030 to help build out carbon capture, but even if it succeeds, can enough of it be up and running by 2030? Complicated industrial projects take time; work on Toronto’s Eglinton Crosstown LRT, for example, began more than a decade ago.

All this said, Canada’s oil industry has cut emissions intensity and has to do more.

From 2014 to 2019, oil and gas production rose 17 per cent, but emissions fell 1 per cent (2 MT). Further reducing methane is one way to keep that trend going; oil sands companies, which represent close to half of industry emissions, say they can cut 22 MT by 2030, only part of which depends on carbon capture.

The challenge for the Liberals is that they are promising two things that are hard to reconcile – vastly lower emissions from oil extraction, and growing oil production. It is not impossible to do both, and this page strongly believes that Canada must aim to do both. But nobody should pretend it’s going to be easy.

Take Ottawa’s planned cap on industry emissions. The cap would be at current levels and would decline in the years to come. Yet, in the March climate plan, the Liberals underlined the economic value of continued investments in oil and gas. “The intent of the cap,” the Emissions Reduction Plan said, “is not to bring reductions in production that are not driven by declines in global demand.”

And declines in global demand there will be, in the not-too-distant future. BloombergNEF predicts that by 2040, the world will have half as many gasoline-only cars on the road. But it would be economic madness to force Canadian oil producers with eager customers to cut or forgo production today, sending erstwhile buyers and their dollars to, say, Iran or Venezuela or Russia.

The Liberals have the right climate ambitions, but the federal documents are a sobering reminder of some basic realities. Hitting the government’s current 2030 target will be challenging, and perhaps even economically damaging, barring technological breakthroughs. But what is equally true is that Canada must lower emissions, and must force industry to steadily cut emissions-per-barrel. Canada must be a world-beater on this score; the industry’s long-term viability depends on it. However, emission targets cannot be so low that the only way to meet them is to shut down oil production.

It short, while Ottawa can and should aim to get most of the way to its 2030 emissions target, aiming to get all the way there may not be prudent.

How would we describe a result where Canada got close to an ambitious environmental goal, without harming the economy? Success.

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