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Environmental Policy

Canadian Provinces Take Lead on Climate Protection

January 21, 2015 | by ANTONIA SOHNS

High Plains of Alberta © pictureguy/veer

Canada's federal government should follow the example of provincial regulations and unify the country's climate policy.

Is Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper a "climate villain"? He has come out strong against a carbon tax, calling it a job killer, pulled the country out of the Kyoto Protocol, weakened its most extensive environmental law, and has been slow to regulate the oil and gas industry, with new rules three years overdue.

Yet this December, Harper surprised many when he indicated that he would be willing to accept a price on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on a continental basis, with the United States (US) and Mexico. This may come as a result of heightened international pressure that faults the government for not adequately addressing climate change or tackling domestic emissions.

At the United Nations (UN) climate conference, COP 20, in Lima last December, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq led the Canadian delegation, joining policymakers from 195 countries to negotiate a legally binding international climate change agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol. 

When COP 20 came to a close in mid-December, the parties had produced the "Lima Call for Climate Action," which according to the UN reaffirmed governments’ decision to announce national climate pledges in advance of COP 21 in Paris, and established ground rules for the Paris 2015 agreement. These Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) will form the basis for climate action post 2020, when the Paris agreement will come into effect. 

Additionally, COP 20 achieved the USD $10 billion goal set for initial contributions to the Green Climate Fund (GCF). Canada pledged CAD $300 (about USD $250) million to the GCF to support developing nations address climate change. Many, however, believe that COP 20 showed how out of touch governments are with their populations, and that political agendas won over scientific urgency, as 2014 is poised to be the hottest year on record.

Canada ranks among the world’s worst climate protectors

At COP 20 Canada was criticized for not backing up its talk with action and waiting to follow the lead of other nations. The Climate Change Performance Index of 2014 by Germanwatch and Climate Action Network Europe lists Canada among the world’s worst in tackling climate change. The Sustainable Governance Indicators by Bertelsmann Foundation too rank Canada near the bottom on global environmental protection as "the current government has demonstrated little if any commitment to this objective." The study ranks it 38th out of the 41 countries in the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the European Union.

At the Lima conference, however, the Canadian government argued that it was making progress to reduce the country’s overall GHG emissions through strong domestic action through investments in adaptation and commitment to phase-down hydroflourocarbons (HFCs). The government noted that GHG emissions in 2012 were 5.1 percent lower than in 2005 while Canada’s economy grew by 10.6 percent during that same period. During that same period, however, emissions from the oil and gas sector, especially due to tar sands production, rose by 107 percent.

While Canada ranks seventh in the world in carbon dioxide emissions per capita, the government points out that national per capita emissions have now fallen to their lowest level since recording started in 1990. Yet, an investigation by Climate Action Tracker reveal that Canada may have been underreporting emissions, missing as much as 212 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2011.

Additionally, Canada is set to overshoot the emissions level it committed to under the Copenhagen accord, reducing their GHG emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. This target was aligned with the United States’ pledge of the same decrease in emissions over that time period. While the US is on track to meet the target, Canada’s carbon emissions are predicted to increase 38 percent by 2030.

Canada, the world’s fifth-largest oil producer, will thus struggle to achieve national GHG emissions reductions, as it continues to develop its oil and gas resources such as tar sands – which require more water and energy than other forms of oil and emit more GHGs in the refining process.

Majority of Canadians support carbon tax

The Canadian people are increasingly concerned about the impact of climate change on future generations, and more than half support a carbon tax. Even the oil and gas industry of the province of Alberta – Canada’s largest oil and gas producer – has been calling on the government for a carbon tax due to the global concerns in addressing climate change and because the industry views the tax as providing a social license to sell Alberta’s oil to the world.

In advance of Paris 2015, they must keep up the pressure, and so must international actors. Harper’s government has shown short term economic gains take precedent over long-term national interest, arguing that regulating the oil and gas industry is “crazy economic policy” in the current fiscal environment of falling oil prices, and without other nations making similar regulatory commitments.

Due to Canada’s lack of broad-sweeping environmental policy, implementation has been at the provincial level.

In British Columbia’s carbon tax of CAD $30-per-metric-tonne levy currently increases the price of gasoline and natural gas by 6.67 cents a liter and 5.7 cents a cubic meter respectively, but residents benefit in lower income taxes. Introduced in 2008, the tax has been called the “gold standard,” and praised for reducing emissions without hurting the economy. Alberta imposes a price on emissions for companies that do not meet energy-efficiency targets, instead of reducing GHG output. It went into effect in 2007. Stephen Harper supports this model.

In 2013, Quebec introduced a cap and trade system that forces businesses to take the cost of emitting carbon into account in their decision-making process.

Another provincial example of climate action is Ontario’s phasing out of coal-fired power plants. In 2014, the province closed its last coal-fired plant, becoming the first jurisdiction in North America to fully eliminate coal as a source of electricity generation.

Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia all use different economic, environmental and political instruments to achieve their climate goal but have helped Canada lower GHG emissions over the years and tackle climate change at the national level.

Best practices from Canada’s provincial regulations can be adopted elsewhere to improve clean energy practices, climate policy, and enhance resilient solutions. For Canada to keep building towards a sustainable future, and meet its international climate agreement goals, Harper’s government should unify the nation and its climate policy.

Antonia Sohns is a Water and Energy Analyst at the World Bank. She writes this article in her personal capacity.

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