Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2018

Robert Lyman is an Ottawa energy policy consultant, former public servant of 27 years and diplomat for 10 years prior to that.

To the extent that there is one, much of the current debate about climate policy in Canada revolves around the use of policy instruments rather than objectives. Those who claim that human influences will have catastrophic effects on the future environment have so tilted (one might say “poisoned”) the public policy debate that few, if any, politicians are prepared to question their thesis for fear of being branded a “denier”. Name-calling, however inaccurate, injects plenty of heat but no light on the key questions involved. Much of the opposition to current climate policy, therefore, has focused on questioning the three primary policy instruments favoured by the federal government – the imposition of carbon taxes, the use of large subsidies to promote wind and solar energy development, and the use of regulation to delay and discourage fossil fuel development.


The controversies have remained focused on the short-term effects and consequences of these policy measures. All major federal political parties have announced their acceptance of the greenhouse gas emission (GHG) targets previously adopted at meetings of the parties to the International Framework Convention on Climate Change. Perhaps it is time to explore exactly what attainment of those targets would mean in practice. In other words, perhaps we should examine not just what governments will do if they stay on the present course to 2023 (the end of the present schedule of carbon tax increases) but beyond that to 2030 and to 2050. Those dates are only 11 and 31 years away, well within the lifetimes of most Canadians living today. Are we on the right course?


The Targets


In May 2015, Canada indicated its intent to reduce GHG emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. In previous international meetings, former Prime Minister Harper agreed to the target of reducing GHG emissions to between 50% and 80% below 2005 levels by 2050. A number of provinces, including Quebec and Ontario, subsequently committed to reduce their emissions by at least 80% below 2005 levels by 2050.


Canada’s emissions in 2005 were 732 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt). Thus, the emissions targets would be 512 Mt by 2030 and somewhere between 366 Mt (50%) and 146 Mt (80%) by 2050. The targets make no allowance for increases in Canada’s economic activity or population.


What are the Current Trends?

To judge how easy or difficult it would be to meet the accepted targets, we might start by considering what our experience has been since 1990 when governments first started setting emission reduction goals.  How have Canadian emissions changed and at what cost?


Unfortunately, there are no published reports by the federal and provincial governments that document how much has been spent by governments and by the private sector since 1990 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, how much additional cost has been added to electricity consumers’ rates by provincial policies that favoured renewable energy sources and forced the phase out of coal-fired power generation, or how much revenue has been foregone by Canadian oil producers as a result of strained pipeline access to export markets driven by climate policies. There is absolutely no doubt that the cost, if it were compiled, would run to tens of billions of dollars. To that effort can be added the consequence of lower emissions due to the most serious economic recession since the Great Depression.


As a result of all this effort and cost, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), Canada’s GHG emissions actually rose from 611 Mt in 1990 to 732 Mt in 2005 and to 745 Mt in 2007, before declining to 682 Mt during the financial recession in 2009. Since then they have slowly increased and then decreased, arriving at 704 Mt in 2016. Since 2005, the trend is an average annual decline of 2.5 Mt per year.


If Canada stayed on this trend line, total emissions would be 668 Mt by 2030 and 616 Mt by 2050. We would miss the GHG emission targets by wide margins.


Assessing the Feasibility of Meeting the Future Targets

To attain the 2030 target of 512 Mt, emissions would have to decline by 192 Mt from 704 in 2016. That is an annual average reduction rate of 17.4 Mt, seven times higher than the rate actually experienced since 2005.


To attain the target of 366 Mt by 2050, emissions would have to decline by 338 Mt, or 9.9 Mt per year, four times as fast as they declined from 2005 to 2016.


To attain the target of 146 Mt by 2050, emissions would have to decline by 690 Mt, or 20.2 Mt per year, eight times as fast as they declined from 2005 to 2016.


Let us consider the enormity of the changes required to meet those targets. We can do so by reviewing the sources of emissions today, the economic and technological challenges involved in changing current practices and the policy capability of governments to manage/force such a transition.


According to ECCC’s National Inventory Report on Greenhous Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada 1990-2016, the breakdown of emission by economic sector for 2016 is as indicated in the following table:


Canada’s GHG Emissions by Economic Sector, 2016

Sector  Emissions (Mt)Percentage
Oil and Gas18326.0
Heavy industry7510.6
Waste and other415.8
Total704 100.0

Source: ECCC


The National Inventory Report can be viewed here:


As indicated in the table, the two largest emission sources are the oil and gas industry, centred in western Canada and Newfoundland and Labrador, and transportation. Emissions are caused mostly by the use (i.e. combustion) of the fossil fuels of coal, oil and natural gas. The production of these fuels only adds to emissions due to the extent large amounts of energy required in the exploration and production process. Transportation, the second largest source, involves all the major modes (i.e. road, rail, marine, aviation and off-road). Contrary to public perception, light duty passenger vehicles (cars, SUVs and pick-up trucks) account for only 11.5% of all emissions in Canada.


What is at Stake in Attempting to Meet Current Targets?


Achieving the targets set for 2030 and 2050 clearly cannot be accomplished by minor changes in energy use, energy efficiency improvements and minor changes in lifestyle. What is at issue is the prospect of fundamental structural change in Canada’s energy economy, in the economic fortunes of Canada’s regions and in Canadians’ standard of living. Using the 50% reduction by 2050 (from 704 Mt in 2016 to 366 Mt in 2050, a reduction of 338 Mt), some or all of the following changes would be required:


  • Complete elimination of Canada’s coal, oil and natural gas industries;
  • Complete elimination of the use of coal and natural gas-fired power plants for electricity generation;
  • Significant reductions in Canada’s energy-intensive industries like mines and minerals; petrochemicals; iron, steel and aluminum; auto and parts manufacturing, and cement;
  • Significant reductions in use of aircraft for commercial and tourist purposes;
  • Significant reduction in the number of private vehicles;
  • Major changes in farming practices;
  • Unprecedented shifts of freight transportation from truck to rail and of passenger transportation from aircraft and private cars to heavy rail and light transit; and
  • Extensive and extremely costly electrification of the transport system.


The view that such changes are feasible rests upon proponents’ faith, not in any demonstrated capabilities. Faith in what? In this:


  • That the problem of large-scale electricity storage, which scientists have been working on for decades with only marginal success, will somehow be solved;
  • That the widespread use of intermittent electricity generation sources like solar and wind energy will not completely destabilize the electricity supply system, leaving the economy vulnerable to frequent brownouts and blackouts;
  • That many other technologies now only in the laboratory or in demonstration stages can be commercialized and marketed at far faster rates than has ever been experienced in any industries other than informatics; and
  • That governments, contrary to long-established practice, will be successful in centrally planning the energy economy and in picking the technology winners to support by subsidies and regulatory instruments.


To this can be added some presumptions that are political or governmental in nature:


  • That politicians and treasury officials can be trusted to pass up the opportunity for creating new programs and aiding favoured constituencies presented by receiving hundreds of billions of dollars in carbon tax revenue;
  • That federal and provincial governments will cordially resolve the enormous tradeoffs in the distribution of economic costs and benefits from climate policies;
  • That Confederation will survive a transformation that impoverishes Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as the resource industry dependent regions of other provinces and that shuts down indefinitely northern Canada’s aspirations for resource development.


Canada has not met a single one of the emissions reduction targets that have been set previously. It is virtually certain that it will not meet the 2020 target of a 17% reduction from 2005 levels. Yet, governments continue to set ever more demanding and untenable targets, and the major political parties, intimidated by the media and environmentalist lobby groups, continue to pay lip service to the objectives. With every passing year, the world’s GHG emissions grow higher, driven by economic development in Asia, making whatever we do in Canada irrelevant to the global condition.


When will we awake to the dangers posed by the present course?


Climate Change Policy – A Threat to Canada