Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2019
Robert Lyman is an Ottawa energy policy consultant, former public servant and diplomat. His full biography is here.
This commentary responds to the recent comments by Trudeau, Scheer and prominent journalists about how and whether we will attain the 2030 target, all of whom treat it as if it were cast in stone. The Paris Agreement targets are not legally binding, not sacrosanct and not realistic.
Elizabeth May – whose party claims to have a “Mission Possible” plan, demanded even more stringent targets:
One of the topical political debates in Canada today is whether Canada will meet its “target” of reducing greenhouse gas emissions set prior to the December 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. The target is to reduce emissions by 2030 to 30 per cent below national emissions in 2005; in other words, to reduce them from 716 megatonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2017 to 512 Mt in 2030.
Confusion abounds about what this target means. First, it is not a legal requirement. The Paris Agreement placed no legal requirement on any country to actually reduce emissions, only to submit plans about how they would reduce emissions according to nationally-determined priorities. There is no penalty for non-compliance. The total emissions reductions that would result from the plans countries submitted in 2015 would not reduce global emissions enough to attain the United Nations aspirational goal of limiting temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In fact, if one accepts the UN’s analysis, the commitments in the existing plans from take the world about one one-thousandth of the way to that objective.
The prospect of missing the target is not unusual. Canada previously set emissions reduction targets in 1992 and 1997 (the Kyoto Accord) and missed them by a wide margin. In 2012, Canada committed to reduce emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020; there is no way that target can now be met. We are in good company in this regard. Only a handful of European countries have ever met past emission reduction targets. Of the top ten largest emitters in the world today, none of them are on track to meet their 2030 emissions reduction targets.
If truth be known, no one really ever expects the targets to be met. In management terms, a company may set targets as a way of providing a standard against which to measure progress towards its long-term business objectives. Business targets must be realistic and achievable. No one expects emission reduction targets to be achieved. They serve political, not operational, objectives. For the governments that set them, they serve as ways to rally their supporters to a cause and, more often, to cope with the incessant pressure they get from environmental activists to “set an example”. For the activists, they serve as the measuring sticks by which they can hold politicians’ feet to the fire, bitterly criticizing them when they (inevitably) fail to meet the objectives. It gives the environmentalists’ objectives the moral high ground in any internal country debates about the tradeoffs between economic and environmental objectives.
So, let’s stop treating Canada’s 2030 target as though it were sacrosanct, and start talking realistically about whether it can and should be met. In fact, it won’t, for three reasons.
First, as acknowledged by the Parliamentary Budget Office in its recent report on this subject, the Canadian economy and population are likely to grow between now and 2030. The PBO’s assumption, drawn from external analysis, is that Canada’s GDP will grow by 26 per cent and its population by 16 per cent between 2016 and 2030. Under normal conditions, GHG emissions would also grow significantly, as energy use and emissions historically have been closely tied to national income. There are two possible reasons why emissions might not grow in our case. One is that we might achieve a remarkable improvement in energy efficiency and emissions intensity (emissions per unit of GDP) as a result of technology, policies and programs. The other is through a deep and prolonged recession.
See Robert Lyman’s latest on the PBO report: “The Stakes Are Too High To Be Tricked By The Numbers”
Second, because we would have to make great efforts just to avoid emissions increasing in a growing economy, we are unlikely to make the kinds of emissions reductions required to go from 715 Mt to 512 Mt in 13 years. Contrary to the perceptions of many, emissions reductions of this magnitude cannot be achieved by installing more efficient light bulbs, driving less with more fuel-efficient cars, or turning down the thermostat in winter. It would take severe cuts to our economy. Eliminating every single car, SUV and pickup truck would only reduce emissions by 85 Mt; it would not take us even half-way to the 2030 target. We would also have to cut a substantial portion of our heavy industry both in resources and manufacturing, spend hundreds of billions of dollars on public transit and new electricity generation and transmission (with corresponding increases in consumer costs), and accept restrictions on personal choices unparalleled except in wartime. Almost half of Canada’s emissions arise from activities in Alberta and Saskatchewan; large emissions reduction would significantly punish those provinces by curtailing their most important industries.
Third, because the economic costs are so high, the political costs would be unacceptable. According to recent polls, more than half the people in Alberta and Saskatchewan already favour secession from Canada because of federal government-imposed policies. Even if the average Canadian consumer accepted without complaint thousands of dollars per year in higher fuel costs for vehicle use, home heating and electricity usage, there would be an inevitable backlash when severe restrictions are placed on a wide range of energy uses, especially when it becomes every year more obvious that global emissions are growing regardless of anything Canadians do. Canada’s political system and constitutional makeup, with the provinces owning and controlling resources within their boundaries, empowers the regions to strongly defend their interests, and they would certainly do so.
The 2030 target was set without due regard for what attaining it would cost Canadians. It deserves to be missed.