Quebec’s 11Mt Carbon Deficit Holds Lessons for all of Canada

A groundbreaking report shows that Quebec cannot afford to be green-lighting fossil fuel projects, such as Enbridge’s Line 9B reversal or increased gas and oil extraction within the province, if it hopes to play its part in avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Quebec has run an 11 megatonne (Mt) carbon deficit since at least 2011, will do so for the foreseeable future, and must decrease its carbon emissions by 3.6 per cent a year until 2100 in order to help avoid a global two degree Celsius temperature increase, concludes the report from the Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économique (IRIS), a Montreal-based think-tank.

“[This shows] the policies proposed by the government are not only insufficient, they go in the wrong direction,” said Maude Prud’homme, an organizer with Tache d’huile (Oil Slick), which organizes against growing oil extraction in the Gaspésie region of Quebec. “Allowing the growth of the tar sands via new pipelines is definitely backwards. The eventual exploitation of [oil and gas in] Anticostie, the Gaspé peninsula or the St-Laurence River all go against reducing our climate footprint,” she told DeSmog.

Quebec's Carbon Budget

The study is based on a 1,340 gigatonne (Gt) global “carbon budget” from the year 2000 and 2100, as established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The carbon budget represents the maximum total carbon emissions in order to avoid a two degree Celsius increase in global temperatures, which has been set by scientists as the cut-off mark in order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.

As the report notes, though, two degrees Celsius provides a long-term guidepost, but we are already seeing major impacts of climate change world-wide with only a 0.8 degree Celsius rise in temperature.

Quebec has already set the goal of reducing carbon emissions by 25 per cent compared to 1990 levels by 2020, but that objective has never been placed side-by-side with a global goal of carbon emission reduction. “We are emitting too many greenhouse gases compared to our size in relation to the rest of the world,” the report’s author Renaud Gignac told DeSmog. “What we see is that Quebec's actions are insufficient in relation to the physical reality of the climate.”

The study makes no effort to hide the enormity of the challenge facing Quebec. The province is currently reducing emissions by only 0.8 per cent per year, much less than the 3.6 per cent that IRIS prescribes. And while the Quebec government says it is on track to meet its goal of a 25 per cent reduction, IRIS’ study says the province must actually be aiming for a reduction of 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 in order to play its fair part.

Over the long term, this means that Quebec must move from its current per capita annual emissions of 9.1t per person, to 1.4t per person in 2050, and further to 0.2t per person in 2100.

To calculate these targets, Gignac applied the “contraction and convergence” theory of carbon emission reduction, established in 1997 during the Kyoto climate change negotiations. Under contraction and convergence, industrialized countries (including Quebec) must at first contract their emissions more quickly than industrializing countries, to make up for the historical over-exploitation of carbon used in their industrialization process. IRIS estimates that this contraction period should go on until 2050. At that point—assuming all countries have had a chance to increase their level of industrial development—all countries would then decrease their use of carbon at the same rate.

For the province to meet this goal, there is a need for immediate and systemic action, said both Gignac and Prud’homme. For example, said Gignac, the provincial government’s favourable stance towards Enbridge’s Line 9B pipeline reversal, which could see tar sands crude piped to Quebec and refined in Montreal, will have an immediate, negative impact on Quebec’s emissions. “The refining process of oil from the tar sands is more polluting [than conventional oil] and it also results in residue like petroleum coke that is then used as fuel in cement factories. So the Quebec government does not seem to realize its responsibility in the climate crisis.”

A Holistic Change

Beyond immediate decisions, argues Prud’homme, Quebec must revisit its long-term plans. This includes everything from transportation infrastructure to industrial development. “We need to be focusing on a reduction of all the sectors that have a strong dependence on oil. We need to absolutely avoid extracting more hydrocarbons. What is currently in the ground needs to stay there." To accomplish this, she says, we need to take a holistic approach.

For example, when discussing reducing emissions in transport, the province needs to also be talking about food sovereignty and the electrification of vehicles, she argues. Or when talking about the overall energy needs of the province, it’s necessary to consider the needs of communities: feeding ourselves, adequate lodging, cultural needs, and see how we can plausibly meet those needs within the physical realities of the climate.

As of writing this, neither the Quebec government not any elected officials had contacted IRIS to discuss their findings. But in an email to DeSmog, a Quebec government spokesperson re-iterated the province’s commitment to its goal of a 25 per cent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020. The email also highlighted the establishment of a cap and trade system to encourage emission reductions in all sectors. They did not, however, directly comment on the carbon deficit or whether they feel that these objectives continue to be valid considering IRIS’ findings.

While many environmentalists have already argued that Quebec has been under-performing in its efforts to reduce carbon emissions, the hope is that this report serves as a wake-up call for Quebec, says Gignac.

Facing the Challenge

“There are other countries that are way ahead of Canada and Quebec. Quebec also has a tendency to say things are much worse in Alberta, but that here we are leaders. But finally when we look at the rest of the world, Quebec is more on the side of countries that exceed their carbon budgets,” said Gignac. “So, if we really want to be on the side of the solution, maybe inspire other Canadian jurisdictions to adopt a carbon budget and be more ambitious, we shouldn't compare ourselves to the worst, but rather compare ourselves to the physical limits of the atmosphere, of what the atmosphere can absorb, based on the latest scientific data.”

Marc Lee, a researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives who has written about the implications of the IPCC’s carbon budget for Canada, sees this report as being a new, useful tool in analyzing Canada’s piece of the global carbon emissions pie, and what needs to be done. By focusing on the science, he says, “the report gives clarity to the challenges we face.” And those challenges will be large.

According to Lee, the upper limit of Canada’s portion of the carbon budget is most likely around 24 Gt. But Canada has over 90 Gt worth of carbon emissions locked up in known fossil fuel reserves, and Canadian industry and the governments are hoping to exploit these reserves within in the coming decades.

While these numbers help to clarify the challenges ahead, they also show how deeply we need to change society in order to surpass them, said Prud'homme.

“The fact the this report sounds the alarm, that more and more scientific bodies are sounding the alarm about the urgency to drastically change our priorities as a society, and that the governments, the powers that be, aren't necessary [to sound the alarm] — I think it's symptomatic of larger issues, of structural decisions in society,” she said. “If these structures are not at the service of the community, that if they are not at the service of future generations, it should lead us to seriously question those democratic decision-making structures.”

Tim McSorley is a freelance journalist and editor with Media Co-op.ca. He lives in Montreal.

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