Canadian climate policy a patchwork of provincial efforts

Dene Moore
National Affairs Contributor
Canada Politics
Shell's new carbon capture project takes emissions from the company's oilsands upgrader and stores them underground. The president of Shell Canada says reducing carbon dioxide emissions is everyone's responsibility.

With the country’s most polluting province about to announce some of the details of its much-anticipated climate-change strategy, experts are hoping that change is coming on climate change.

Actual emissions reductions from Alberta could mark a new beginning in the fight against carbon emissions in Canada.

“There’s just a lot of smoke and mirrors out there,” says Mark Jaccard, a professor of environmental economics at Simon Fraser University’s School of Resource and Environmental Management.

Ottawa has been entirely absent from climate action for several successive governments now, leaving any concrete action to the provinces and cities, says Jaccard, who has helped design and evaluate policies across the country.

But long lists of priorities and actions that can be ticked off are not what policy analysts are looking for, he says.

“Targets are nothing. It’s policies that count,” Jaccard says.

In Alberta, Premier Rachel Notley says her government will release some details of its climate change strategy this month, before she heads to Paris for the UN climate change summit.

Notley says the strategy will include reductions in coal-fired electricity generation and an energy efficiency program, among other measures.

The province has already said that a higher price for industrial carbon emissions is in the offing.

Canada must become a world leader on climate change, Notley told attendees of the Broadbent Institute gala last week.

“The way to a better future lies in a balanced, responsible, determined and effective approach to climate change,” she said. “That’s what we owe our children. That’s what we owe this planet. That’s what is necessary for our economic future.”

Alberta has expanded its oil and gas industry under the guise of an emission “intensity cap,” which Jaccard described as a “shell game.”

“Alberta’s oil production emissions skyrocketed under that policy,” he says.

“So there’s pressure on the incoming government, who have said we’re going to be more serious about climate.”

The approach varies from province to province. Targets are popular.

New Brunswick has an action plan that calls for a 10 per cent cut to greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 levels by 2020. Media reports earlier this year suggest the province is well on its way to blowing that target and actually increasing emissions.

Nova Scotia has committed to cutting emissions 10 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. The province has a legislated cap on emissions from its provincial power corporation but received a federal exemption last year to keep its eight coal-fired generation stations burning.

The province will instead phase out coal over the next 15 years.

Prince Edward Island announced a climate change strategy in 2008 and, according to the David Suzuki Foundation, is on its way to its target of reducing emissions to between 75 and 85 per cent below 2001 levels by 2050.

Newfoundland and Labrador has a general action plan in place since 2005 but emissions reductions have fallen victim to the province’s burgeoning offshore oil and gas sector.

None of the territories have emissions reductions regulations, though Nunavut and the Yukon are among the lower GHG-producing jurisdictions in Canada.

The top five polluters — Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan and British Columbia — were responsible for almost 91 per cent of Canada’s national total GHG emissions of 726 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2013, according to Environment Canada.

Only Ontario and Quebec had lower emissions that year than they did in 1990. Alberta, Saskatchewan and B.C. were all higher.

Saskatchewan is still waiting to put into force its 2010 GHG reduction legislation.

Manitoba hasn’t done much better. The province committed to a very modest six per cent reduction in emissions below 1990 levels by 2012 and missed it by a country mile. Emissions in 2012 were more than 20 per cent higher than they were in 1990.

B.C. was a climate action hero when then-premier Gordon Campbell announced North America’s first carbon tax in 2008 and legislated emission reduction targets as part of its climate action plan.

The province adopted carbon-neutral government legislation and was the first Canadian jurisdiction to legislate a framework for a cap-and-trade system.

Since then, though, the province has lagged, repealing the cap-and-trade legislation.

“Christie Clark has frozen the carbon tax and doesn’t seem to be doing anything at this point,” Jaccard says.

The province is aiming for rapid growth of a liquefied natural gas industry but it does have legislation limiting LNG facilities to 0.16 tonnes of GHG emissions per tonne of LNG produced.

Ontario, which is expected to release a climate change strategy in the new year, accomplished “one of the most significant carbon reduction initiatives in North America,” says Rick Smith, executive director of the Broadbent Institute, when it phased out coal-generated electricity last year.

The province has committed to joining Quebec and California in a cap-and-trade system aims to have draft regulations by early next year – another milestone in the province’s road to cutting emissions by 15 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Quebec introduced its cap-and-trade system in 2013 and linked to California’s carbon market last year.

But the provinces are on their own, so far.

Fed’s failing grade

In his Canadian Climate Policy report card released last month, Jaccard gives the federal government a failing grade.

With virtually no policies to materially reduce emissions for the past decade, he says Canada’s 2020 emissions target is unachievable; the 2050 target will require an almost complete transformation of the energy system.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he will set a national cap and he will have to allocate reductions to the provinces.

“I know there will be lots of discussions about that in the days, weeks, month ahead, and hopefully not years,” he says.

There are three options for achieving real reductions, Jaccard says: an economy-wide price on carbon emissions, such as a carbon tax; an economy-wide cap on emissions, such as Quebec has put in place; or a slate of very targeted, aggressive regulations like California’s vehicle emissions, low-carbon fuel and renewable electricity standards.

“They are all good policies but mostly we don’t do those,” he says.

Smith says the political inaction on the federal level has actually been ongoing for 25 years, under Stephen Harper, Jean Chrétien before him and Brian Mulroney prior to that.

It remains to be seen whether Trudeau’s Liberal government moves beyond talk to action, he says.

“My enthusiasm is tempered by a generally miserable record of federal government absence from the climate debate over 25 years,” Smith says.

Harper, in fact, was not inactive. His Conservative government “trashed” most pieces of environmental legislation that did exist, Smith says.

But maybe that’s a blessing in disguise for Trudeau, he adds.

“After nine years of the Harper government, nobody can argue the fact that nothing exists at the federal level. We have no effective pollution regulations, we have no effective fisheries protection or pipeline review process,” Smith says.

“I think sometimes it’s easier to build a brand new house than to renovate a drafty, dilapidated old house.”