Contributed by Robert Lyman @ 2015

Since 1988, when concerns were first raised at international levels about the possibility that increasing human-related emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases (GHG) might be having an adverse impact on global temperatures, various countries have adopted targets to reduce emissions. In 1992, there was an international agreement among developed countries on a voluntary target of stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by 2005. It failed. Having not met a relatively modest target, countries agreed upon a more stringent one. In 1997 about 150 countries committed under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce GHG emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels by the 2008 to 2012 period. Most countries did not even come close to meeting it. At the Copenhagen conference of December 2009, the developed countries like Canada agreed to reduce emissions by 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. At the forthcoming conference in Paris in December 2015, Canada will be asked to commit to even tougher targets for 2030 and 2050.

The new-elected Liberal Government has already declared that Canada will take an aggressive approach to greenhouse gas emissions reduction. It is time to have a look at how well we are doing in meeting the Copenhagen target.

Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2005 were 737 megatonnes (Mt), so reducing them by 17% would mean eliminating 125 Mt to go down to 612 Mt. Every year Environment Canada publishes a report entitled Canada’s Emissions Inventory, which shows the trends in GHG emissions in each sector of the economy. The most recent Environment Canada report shows that emissions in 2013 totaled 726 Mt, down 11 Mt since 2005 after the most serious recession since the Great Depression. Even if we stayed in recession for the indefinite future, we still would not be on a track that would take us to the Copenhagen target.

In fact, the prospects for attaining that dubious goal are even worse. In December 2014, Environment Canada published a report on the current trends in GHG emissions to 2020. The report showed that, instead of moving closer to the Copenhagen target, we are moving further away. The projected emissions by 2020 are now 746 Mt! Unless new and severe measures are taken, we will miss the target by 134 Mt. Other projections, by organizations like the National Energy Board, suggest that energy consumption, and the related emissions, will be considerably higher than those forecast by Environment Canada.

What this means is that the Canadian economy is growing again and that factors like lower oil prices are likely to further increase economic activity, investment and employment, as well as emissions. However, the new Government, supported by the media and the environmental community, will engage in a great deal of hand-wringing and talk about what will have to be done to “turn the situation around.” In this context, it is interesting to consider what exactly has been happening and what a major new set of targets would mean.

The following table shows Canadian GHG emissions by economic sector as defined by Environment Canada in selected years. The numbers show millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e).

by lyman table targets made to be missed

The table shows some interesting things. After declining during the recession, overall emissions are growing again, although not very fast. Emissions in the transportation sector, which receive so much media attention, are in fact quite stable, largely due to much more stringent regulations governing vehicle fuel economy. Emissions produced in the generation of electricity have fallen considerably and are expected to continue doing so, largely as a result of increased nuclear energy production, the phase out of coal-burning power plants and the loss of significant demand from industry, especially in Ontario. This has been largely offset by the increase in emissions from oil and gas production, which is expected to continue to 2020.

While some might want to use this statistic to demonize the Canadian oil and gas sector, it is useful to bear in mind that the growth in China’s emissions in 2013 alone was over 500 Mt, more than two and a half times Canada’s total emissions from oil and gas projected for 2020.

The most important message to take from this table is that, despite 25 years of program and tax measures to reduce GHG emissions, despite the spending of many billions of dollars in subsidies for alternative fuels and energy “conservation”, despite a serious and prolonged economic recession, emissions from Canada’s economy continue to diverge substantially from the paths set by government targets.

The targets now being considered are far more stringent. The European Union and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, along with a host of environmental lobby groups and wealthy activists, are pushing for adoption of a target of an 80 per cent reduction from 2010 levels by 2050. That would take Canadian emissions down to 141 Mt in 35 years.

Why, one might ask, do those who believe in the thesis that humans are causing catastrophic global warming persist in pressing upon governments the adoption of emission reduction targets that are far beyond what is economically, politically and sometimes even technologically possible? The answer lies in the politics of climate change. High, consistently unattainable targets leave democratic governments in the position in which they are nominally honour-bound to take extraordinary action to do more. Targets give environmentalists symbolic two-by-fours with which they can beat governments about the head and shoulders when they fail to attain more reasonable goals. For politicians, the targets give them political justification (“cover”) to impose measures that would otherwise be seen as punitive, clearly harmful to the economy and/or disruptive of people’s rights and freedoms.

A good example of what Canadians have in store for them if the new Trudeau government signs on to much tougher GHG emission reduction targets in Paris is the imposition of a carbon tax. British Columbia already has a carbon tax set at $30 per tonne, the equivalent of about seven cents per litre on gasoline. To attain the proposed 2050 target, the former National Roundtable on the Economy and the Environment argued that a carbon tax of $300 per tonne would be needed, and that a tax starting at $200 per tonne (i.e. 46 cents per litre equivalent) should be implemented immediately. It appears that the Trudeau government is planning to “take the lead” by getting the provincial governments to be the ones that impose the taxes, thus ensuring that the provinces get the enormous revenues (and suffer the inevitable political fallout).

Even $300 per tonne would not be enough to force Canadians to completely stop using coal, oil and natural gas by 2050 as the environmentalists want, as this would shut down every important industry in the country and leave people without transport fuels. The targets, however, would justify an unprecedented growth in the role of governments and in their control over people’s lives. That, ultimately, is what emissions targets are all about.

Robert Lyman is an energy economist of some 37 years experience, a former public servant and diplomat. He is currently an Ottawa-based energy consultant.