“The first thing you have to do is have a plan; you have to implement your plan, and then you have to ratchet up ambition. That’s part of the Paris agreement, and that’s what we’re absolutely committed to doing.”
That’s Environment Minister Catherine McKenna in an interview she gave to the Globe and Mail before heading to Bonn for the COP23 climate talks.
Let’s just start by saying it’s really good to hear that McKenna understands she needs a plan. Two years into her mandate, she hasn’t shown us one. An actual plan would include numbers that add up to the stated goal. McKenna has offered no such thing.
The Trudeau government is very committed to talking about climate change, to talking up goals they aren’t going to meet. What they aren’t terribly interested in is telling the rest of us how they propose to get there, backed up by math.
“We are absolutely on track to meet our 2030 commitments,” McKenna told the Globe. “We have a plan … and there’s a whole variety of measures we need to be taking. We also aren’t doing this alone. We’re working with provinces and territories.”
That much is true: the federal government is relying on the provinces to get us to the planned 30 per cent reduction in 2005 emissions levels by 2030. But what the provinces have told us so far doesn’t add up to a 30 per cent reduction.
Let’s talk about the commitment to eliminate coal by 2030. McKenna and the British are pushing in tandem for that ban. That’s a good thing, of course; coal must be eliminated from the global fuel supply if we’re going to address climate change. But Canada generates 80 per cent of its electricity from non-GHG emitting energy sources, like hydro and nuclear. Easy enough for us to wag our fingers and tell the rest of the world to get off coal — but if the idea is to set an example, we’re failing.
For the British, and for Canada to some extent, the plan is to replace much of that coal-fired generation with natural gas. Emissions from natural gas run to about 50 to 60 per cent of the emissions from coal — but wind and solar emit nothing at all. So when will we eliminate all fossil fuels from the generation mix?
If the war on coal is won, the war on natural gas must follow. Is the Trudeau government willing to actually say that?
If we eliminated all the coal-burning we saw in 2015 (the last reported year) in favour of natural gas, our total emissions compared to 2005 would drop by … about 4 per cent. That’s not insignificant. It’s no silver bullet, either.
But a further 7 per cent reduction is available to us by moving completely to non-emitting sources such as hydro, wind and solar. That would get us one-third of the way to our Paris goal on its own. Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends.
Alberta accounts for close to 60 per cent of all Canada’s emissions from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity. The province plans to get off coal by 2030, replacing half of that displaced fuel source with natural gas — with the remaining generation to come from renewables. Which sounds terrific until you read the fine print — and understand just how disingenuous McKenna is being in Bonn on the topic of coal. Alberta’s plan is to offset all those emissions reductions from eliminating coal by increasing emissions from oilsands production. So much for our Paris commitments.
McKenna also is suggesting a ‘low carbon fuel standard’ will be a key factor in reducing our emissions. She’s not wrong; it’s a regulatory way to get industry to reduce the carbon content in the mix of fuels we all burn. But that’s a complicated policy to tackle and McKenna already is indicating the standard won’t be complete in time for the Christmas target date.
Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canada adopted a national gasoline standard of 5 per cent ethanol content. It’s never been clear why he did that. The Harper government was notoriously indifferent to climate change policy. Canada imports both corn and ethanol, while we export oil we could make into gasoline ourselves.
If the idea was to cut carbon emissions, importing ethanol is a poor approach; it doesn’t really offer much of a reduction in emissions, for starters, and the ethanol imported from the U.S. Midwest is relatively carbon-intensive to produce.
Canada imports fully half the ethanol today we use in gasoline. We have consumed all our domestic capacity to make this fuel. If the Trudeau government boosts the ethanol content standard — say, by another 5 per cent — we’d likely end up importing it — which means we’d be competing directly with California, which is busy ratcheting up its own fuel carbon standard.
One recent estimate said that, in order to meet its upcoming fuel standard, California would require almost 75 per cent of Brazil’s production of sugar cane ethanol. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for us.
So the delay in announcing our new national fuel standard is hardly surprising, given the factors involved. Does the Trudeau government really understand what it promised to do? Hard to tell at the moment.
The minister is right — you need a plan. So where is it?