Obama’s New Climate Plan Leaves Canada in the Dust

In the ongoing battle to win approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, Canada has repeatedly justified its climate inaction by pointing to the fact that it shares similar emission reductions targets to the U.S. In August of last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper even wrote a letter to President Barack Obama inviting “joint action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the oil and gas sector” if such efforts would help green-light the Keystone XL.

But this week’s announcement that Obama will use his executive authority to introduce a nationwide emissions reduction plan that targets more than 1,000 of the country’s most highly polluting power plants might leave Canada squarely in the dust.

Obama’s new plan — already being called the “most ambitious anti-global warming initiative of any U.S. president" — will introduce new standards by 2015 to decrease the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of power plants (responsible for 40 per cent of the country’s carbon pollution) by 30 per cent from their 2005 levels by 2030.

Cutting emissions and climate confusion

The new plan is expected to tackle emissions as well as contentious climate politics in the U.S. where political positioning on emissions standards and carbon tax schemes is often drawn along sharp lines.

“We see this as the pivotal battle on climate change,” Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) director of government affairs David Goldston said at a briefing last week. “For the first time, climate is going to be front and centre as the national issue. And what that means, we think, is that when this battle is over and the power plant standards are in effect, climate will have turned into an ordinary environmental issue.”

The NRDC has been pivotal in the creation of the new emissions standards and is leading a massive campaign this month to "demystify" climate change issues.

Oilsands trouble Canada’s emissions future

Such determination south of the border is bringing Canada’s stalled climate politics into sharper relief as the Harper government continues to hold GHG emissions regulations for the oil and gas sector at bay.

The federal government has promised to deliver strengthened emissions standards for several years but has consistently failed, especially to rein in emissions from the Alberta oilsands, Canada’s fastest growing source of GHGs.

Under the Copenhagen Accord, Canada committed to reducing GHG emissions 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. But according to Environment Canada’s latest emissions report, Canada will fail to meet its own reduction targets using current measures.

Environment Canada data also shows emissions from the oilsands increased around 267 per cent between 1990 and 2011 despite a per barrel emissions decrease of a reported 26 per cent. The projected increase of oil production in the oilsands has emissions from the sector set to steadily increase for several decades.

“The EPA’s climate rules send a strong signal that the United States is serious about addressing its largest source of greenhouse gas pollution,” Simon Dyer, senior spokesman for the Pembina Institute, said in a statement. “In contrast, the Canadian government continues to resist action on addressing its major emissions growth problem — the rapidly increasing greenhouse gas pollution from oilsands production.”

“While Canada has the same 2020 emissions target as the U.S., our federal government has failed to produce a plan to meet its goal,” he said.

Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, echoed those sentiments, saying climate action in the U.S. demonstrates Canada’s need to rein in emission from the oilsands sector.

“It’s time for Canada to follow suit,” he said in a statement released Monday. “We should all celebrate this U.S. action taken for the sake of our shared climate…It’s high time for Canada to step up, do what is right, and stop the soaring pollution of the tar sands.”

“Canada,” Gray said, “can either lead or be dragged along in this global shift towards a safer, cleaner, low carbon economy.”

Canada lacks leadership

A study released by Globe International, which surveyed nearly 500 pieces of climate legislation in 66 countries, found Canada lacked any “flagship legislation” for climate despite being in the world’s top 20 emitters.

Political support for strong climate standards in Canada has dwindled under the Harper government, which withdrew from the international Kyoto Accord in 2011.

According to federal Green party leader Elizabeth May, Canada has a history of following the “bad behaviour” of the U.S. when it comes to climate policies.

“When Barack Obama came up with the 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, Canada said ‘okay, we’ll take that target’ because it weakened our target [under Kyoto] even more,” she said in an interview last May.

A new international climate change regime is expected from the upcoming UNFCCC COP 21 meeting that will take place in Paris in 2015. Canada has been accused of acting as an "obstructionist" at international climate conferences for the last several years.

“Many Canadians,” May said, “don’t realize that the worst thing that Harper has done on climate, as bad as his domestic performance has been, has been undermining global negotiations.”

She added the most recent Environment Canada figures “make is absolutely crystal clear that there is no intention on the part of Stephen Harper for reaching the Copenhagen target either.”

Image Credit: Scout Turfankijan for Obama for America via Flickr.

Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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