Aglukkaq touts emissions cuts, numbers tell another story

In reality, emissions targets have never seemed further out of reach
Minister of the Environment, Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency and Minister for the Arctic Council Leona Aglukkaq laughs as she is sworn in during a ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Monday, July 15, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Leona Aglukkaq (Adrian Wyld/CP)

After the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its discouraging new findings on global warming earlier this week, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq did her best to turn grim news to partisan advantage. “Thanks to our actions,” she said in the House of Commons, “carbon emissions will go down by close to 130 megatonnes, compared to what they would have been under the Liberals.”

Not only did Aglukkaq look optimistically ahead by asserting that emissions “will go down” thanks to the actions of Stephen Harper’s government, she also alluded proudly to progress supposedly already accomplished, as in “we have seen significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

To check out her claims, I turned to the source Aglukkaq’s own staff suggests, an Environment Canada annual report simply called Canada’s Emissions Trends. I started by searching for evidence that actions taken by the Harper government since it came to power in 2006 have already resulted in “significant reductions” in the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases Canadians pump into the atmosphere.

The report does say that total Canadian emissions fell by 35 megatonnes between 2005 and 2011, from 737 to 702 megatonnes. But it attributes that decline, not mainly to any federal policy moves, but primarily to less fossil fuel burning by so-called “emissions-intensive and trade-exposed” industries and from declining coal-fired electrical generation.

What happened, according to the report, was that those trade-exposed industries emitted less because of “the economic downturn [and] technological changes such as improved emission-control technologies.” As for electrical generation, the declining emissions there were “primarily the result of Ontario’s coal generation phase-out.”

So much for any suggestion that Conservative government actions are behind that recent period of lower emissions. That still leaves Aglukkaq’s more central claim that, compared with what the old Liberals would have done had they clung to power, Conservative policy will reduce emissions by 130 megatonnes in the future.

To understand this partisan jab, here’s the key line to consider from the section in Canada’s Emissions Trends on forecasts: “Under the ‘with current measures’ scenario, Canada’s [greenhouse gas] emissions in 2020 are projected to be 734 megatonnes. This is 128 megatonnes less than under a scenario where consumers, businesses and governments had taken no action to reduce emissions post 2005.”

So Aglukkaq is asking us to compare the emissions track that the Canadian economy is on right now with the following highly imaginative scenario: The Liberals stayed in power after 2005, but never did a single thing to reduce emissions again, while consumers, businesses and provincial governments—evidently inspired by the Liberals’ diabolical decision to maintain the ’05 status quo—also opted never to take another step toward energy efficiency.

This meaningless comparison doesn’t tell us anything, of course, about real economic or political choices. Still, that roughly 130-megatonne emissions reduction by 2020 is an interesting projection. It’s worth asking how much of it might be attributed fairly, as Aglukkaq suggests it should be, to the federal government’s own actions.

The report does credit the Harper government’s new regulations (a coordinated Canada-U.S. policy) to reduce emissions from cars and light trucks and its new performance standards for coal-fired generation. But the forecast also builds in provincial measures, such as B.C.’s carbon tax, Quebec’s cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions, and, especially, Ontario’s phase-out of coal-generated electricity. As well, the report notes that energy efficiency has steadily improved since 1990—a key trend in so-called “intensity,” which means any government could look forward to a small annual decline in the amount of emissions for every dollar’s worth of Canadian economic activity.

In other words, a range of regulatory factors and long-term technological and economic changes contribute to that 130-megatonne projected reduction by 2020 from where Canada would have ended up if all progress had mysteriously ceased in 2005.

The biggest single contributor is lower emissions from electrical generating—projected in the report to drop 31 per cent, or 38 megatonnes, between 2005 and 2020. According to Ontario’s environment ministry, the end of coal generation in that province alone, accomplished between 2003 and this year, represents a 30-megatonne reduction.

In case you’re thinking that, no matter who gets the bragging rights, a 130-megatonne cut in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions sounds pretty good, don’t kid yourself. Remember, that’s just the reduction from the fictional stuck-in-2005 scenario. In the real world, Canada’s Emissions Trends projects a measly three-megatonne trim, from 737 megatonnes in 2005 to 734 megatonnes in 2020.

That’s next to nothing. Why so little progress? Here’s a line from Canada’s Emissions Trends that partly answers the question, but is unlikely to show up on any cabinet minister’s QP answer sheet anytime soon: “Electricity emissions are projected to decline by 38 megatonnes (31 per cent) between 2005 and 2020. In contrast, increased production in Canada’s oil sands is expected to drive a rise in emissions from the oil and gas sector of 38 megatonnes (23 per cent) between 2005 and 2020.”

In other words, reductions in one area are offset by increases elsewhere.  For emissions overall to drop steeply, which must happen if Canada is to meet its international commitments, regulatory change unlike anything we’ve experienced so far, or seriously debated lately, must somehow come into force.

When the Harper government signed the so-called Copenhagen Accord in late 2009, it pledged to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions to 607 megatonnes in 2020, or 17 per cent below 2005 levels. As of this week, with Aglukkaq sounding so determined to claim credit where it is hardly due, that target has never seemed further out of reach.

Listen to highlights from an interview with John Stone, a lead author of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, former longtime Canadian government official, and now adjunct professor of geography and environmental studies at Carleton University, on this week’s edition of our Maclean’s on the Hill podcast.