Jobs, Economy and Environment

CLC report: reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Canada

November 18, 2015

Ten lessons Canada can learn from the U.S. on reducing greenhouse gas emissions

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Post-1990 – Emissions Rise, Kyoto Falls in North America
  3. Copenhagen and beyond – U.S. on track to meet 4% below 1990; Canada way off course to meet 7% over 1990
  4. U.S. Emissions Reductions at the Federal Level – the President Barack Obama Plan
  5. Canada’s Emission Reduction at the Federal Level – No Plan
  6. Sector by Sector Emissions
  7. Power Sector Greenhouse Gas Emissions
  8. The Provincial and State Story
  9. Job Implications
  10. International Commitments Moving Forward to COP 21 in Paris – INDC
  11. Ten Lessons


At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, countries agreed to stabilize carbon pollution by keeping it to 1990 levels. That was 25 years ago. 

While a handful of developed countries (including Denmark, Sweden, and the United Kingdom) have positioned themselves as climate leaders, the U.S. – a long climate-change laggard – has, in recent years, shown leadership on climate change. For instance, in November 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping of China announced a joint U.S.-China climate change commitment where the U.S. would cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 26 to 28%, and China would ensure carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions peak by 2030, while ensuring 20% of all energy is provided by renewable sources by 2030. This and many other recent initiatives have meant that, quite simply, the U.S. has been able to successfully reduce their national greenhouse gas emissions while Canada’s have continued to grow. Compared to the U.S., who will most likely meet their 2020 “Copenhagen target”, Canada will miss its 2020 and 2030 pledges by a wide margin. While most of the world is actually trying to deal with climate change, are there lessons that long-time climate laggard, Canada, can learn from our neighbour to the south?

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Post-1990 – Emissions Rise, Kyoto Falls in North America

Urgent action is needed as evidenced by recent reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). However, both Canada and the United States have not carried their weight on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, notably carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution.

Despite global goals of stabilizing carbon pollution to 1990 levels, average annual global CO2 emissions increased by 52% from 1992 to 2012 , and between 2012 and 2013, they increased more than any other year since 1984 . In January 2015, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that “globally averaged temperature over land and ocean surfaces for 2014 was the highest among all years since record keeping began in 1880.”  In Canada, the average temperature increased by 1.6°C over the past 66 years.  

Since 1990 (the baseline for the Kyoto Protocol), both the United States and Canada have seen emissions grow, while Europe has successfully reduced emissions from the 1990 baseline.

The Kyoto Protocol had an achievable target for Canada of 6% below 1990 levels by 2012. The United States’ Kyoto target was 5% below 1990 levels by 2012. 

Unfortunately, the U.S. never ratified Kyoto, and Canada pulled out of the Kyoto protocol in December of 2011. Despite Europe’s reductions in emissions from the 1990 baseline (Figure1), both Canada and the U.S. are currently nowhere near the level of emissions reductions envisioned by the Kyoto Protocol. Nevertheless, despite minimal action until 2005 and a significant drop in 2008 due to the contracting global economy (Figure 2), the U.S. has been significantly more successful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions than Canada. 

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Figure 1 – Canada, U.S. and EU – Past and Projected Emissions 1990 to 2030

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Copenhagen and beyond – U.S. on track to meet 4% below 1990; Canada way off course to meet 7% over 1990

In 2009, seventeen years after the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, the Copenhagen Accord established new greenhouse gas emission reduction targets; and the U.S., as a whole, began to actually reduce emissions. Currently, it looks as though the U.S. is on track to meet their Copenhagen pledge of 17% reductions in emissions from the 2005 level by the year 2020 (equivalent to approximately 4% below 1990 levels). Rather than a planned shift away from fossil fuels however, much of the greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the U.S. came as a product of a contracting economy following the 2008 economic collapse, although emissions reductions have been increasing in recent years.

Canada made the exact same pledge as the U.S. – a 17% reduction from 2005 levels by 1990 (equivalent to a 7% increase in emissions from 1990 level) by the year 2020. Canada will not meet this target, primarily although not exclusively due to rapidly increasing emissions in the tar sands which are not being offset by other deep reductions. For instance, exactly when Canada should have been reducing emissions between 1990 and 2011, emissions from Canada’s tar sands grew by 267%, despite a 26% reported decrease in per-barrel emissions. 

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Figure 2 – Change in Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a 1990 level

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U.S. Emissions Reductions at the Federal Level – the President Barack Obama Plan

A 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision to declare carbon dioxide a pollutant paved the way for the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon. However, it is only after the 2009 election of Barack Obama that we start to see overall national emissions begin to decline. In June of 2014, President Obama announced the U.S. plan to reduce emissions from existing power plants – the lynchpin of President Obama’s nationwide Climate Action Plan. This flagship policy targets more than 1,000 of the country’s most highly polluting power plants. With 39% of U.S.-wide electricity generation from coal, the electricity sector accounts for roughly a third of all U.S. greenhouse gases.

The U.S. plan sets state-by-state targets for reducing GHG emission per unit of electricity, rather than simply shutting down coal-fired power generation. The flexibility means that all states must take action and encourages utilities to take advantage of all the options available across the electricity system, including on- and off-site efficiency improvements and fuel-switching. This means the impact is much more immediate and the first reductions will be the most economical reductions. This plan was updated in July of 2015, and states must now source 28% (up from 22%) of their power from renewables by 2030.

Under the initiative, the U.S. will reduce carbon emissions by 32% on 2005 levels by 2030, lining up with the offer it made as part of this year’s international climate negotiations taking place in Paris.

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Canada’s Emission Reduction at the Federal Level – No Plan

Canada lacks any “flagship legislation” for climate despite being in the world’s top 20 emitters. In fact outside of provincial action, there has been little if any federal leadership on climate change. 

In fact, federal government representatives in Canada are known to create the illusion of climate action, when there is little being done at the federal level. For instance, the former Minister of the Environment, Leona Aglukkaq claimed the Federal Government was “implementing a responsible sector-to-sector regulatory approach”; however, the regulations supposedly being “implemented” weren't tabled. Similarly in a December 2014 interview, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that Canadian emissions were falling. “Other countries’ emissions for the most part are going up. World emissions are going up. Canada’s have not been going up.” This was simply not true. Although Canadian emissions had dropped since 2008 because of the recession, the former Federal Government’s own reports did not indicate emissions reductions; Canada’s emissions will be 22% higher than its Copenhagen target of reducing greenhouse gases by 17% below their 2005 levels by 2020.

It must however be noted that Canada has taken some regulatory steps for coal-fired power generation, although the actions pale in comparison to the U.S. action on coal-fired electricity generation. At the federal level, Canada has prevented any new coal-fired generating stations from being built; however, there is no market demand for new coal. All existing coal-fired plants are permitted to operate unabated until they close. Once they reach their end-of-life in about 45 to 50 years (2060 to 2070), the Canadian coal plants will have to adhere to the regulations. Whereas in the U.S., the legislation requires coal-fired power plants to reduce emissions from 2020 to 2030, approximately 40 years earlier. 

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Sector by Sector Emissions

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Figure 3 – Sector by Sector Emissions

Canada has repeatedly announced a sector-by-sector regulatory approach to greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately, despite ten years in government, the former Conservative government had only regulated a portion of the greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector and it was to align with U.S. standards. 

The Passenger Automobile and Light Truck Greenhouse Gas Emission Regulations establish mandatory GHG emission standards for new vehicles of the 2011 and later model years, but that single piece of regulatory harmonization is the only tangible action the Harper government has taken.

The former Conservative government had announced forthcoming regulations in the oil and gas sector for five years, but the regulations have yet to be tabled or enacted. Similarly, the former Conservative government repeatedly delayed federal rules addressing power plants that use natural gas.

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Power Sector Greenhouse Gas Emissions

All changes show relative to Business as Usual (BAU), based on estimates from EPA and Environment Canada. U.S. estimates are based on EPA regulatory analysis for Option 1 – State Implementation case assuming a 22% reduction. Canadian estimates are based on Environment Canada analysis for final federal coal power regulations.

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The Provincial and State Story

While U.S. national emissions have generally been trending downward as lower-priced natural gas has displaced coal in power production, steeper reductions require mandatory limits on power plant emissions, as President Obama’s administration has proposed. But implementation of the administration’s Clean Power Plan will fall largely to the states.

Meanwhile in Canada, national emissions are rising. Further, if development of the tar sands continues as projected, the emissions will continue to grow and could even double in a decade. The inadequate Intended Nationally-Determined Contribution announced by Canada relies heavily on the action of subnational governments and policies. While some Canadian provinces are entirely dependent on hydro electricity generation (i.e. Manitoba, Quebec), Ontario relies most heavily on nuclear power for electricity generation. Only a few provinces still use coal, though it continues to be a substantial energy source for landlocked Alberta and Saskatchewan, with Alberta burning more coal than all other provinces combined. Nova Scotia is working to reduce its reliance on coal-fired plants, while Ontario shut down all coal-fired generation.

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Figure 4 – Per-capita emissions by province, excluding Atlantic Canada

This has a huge impact on the potential reductions of greenhouse gas emission. For instance, although Alberta has much higher per capita emissions than Ontario, Alberta also has more room to reduce emissions. Ontario has shut down its coal plants and ramped up renewables and other low-carbon sources of electricity. Similarly, Quebec and B.C. have made strides in reducing emissions, while Alberta and Saskatchewan’s emissions have grown at an alarming rate (primarily due to the growth of the tar sands). However, even today, the tar sands are not the greatest source of emissions in Alberta. In fact, coal-fired electricity generation is the single largest source of emissions, providing more than 60% of electricity generation in Alberta.

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Figure 5 – Change in Provincial GHGs since 2005, excluding Atlantic Canada

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Job Implications

The U.S. employment market was dreadful in 2010, but has improved steadily. Since then, it has become a job creating machine, while Canada sputters. Although there are a myriad of factors at play, there have been positive job implications associated with the U.S. taking meaningful action on climate change.

Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. supports clean energy research and development, deploys the technology in the U.S. and then supports the market opportunities for the technology globally. Fundamentally, the United States sees clean energy as an economic opportunity as much as an environmental solution.

The U.S. has given clear signals to business, courted them and encouraged them to make commitments independent of the state-by-state targets. These efforts have led to ground-breaking commitments from thirteen multinationals including General Motors, Microsoft, Apple, and Coca-Cola when they signed the American Business Act on Climate Pledge, which committed a collective USD$140 billion to climate and clean energy action. The firms pledged to cut carbon and ramp up renewables.

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International Commitments Moving Forward to COP 21 in Paris – INDC

Each developed country made a promise to provide their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution to greenhouse gas emission reductions, as well as global climate finance by the first quarter of 2015 (March 31st, 2015). Canada submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) communicating its economy-wide target to reduce greenhouse gas emission by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. This is a completely inadequate contribution and reflects Canada’s refusal to do its fair share of greenhouse gas reductions or pull its weight. At least the target is better than Canada’s Copenhagen target. Canada’s INDC commitment is equivalent to a reduction of 2% below 1990 industrial greenhouse gas emissions. 

On the other hand, the U.S. does not have a sufficient target. Instead, it has a medium target, which is significantly better than Canada’s inadequate target. The U.S. submitted their INDC on time, unlike Canada, and promised to reduce emissions by 26 to 28% below 2005 targets by 2025. According to Carbon Tracker, the “Medium” rating indicates that the U.S. climate plans are at the least ambitious, and are at the end of what would be a fair contribution. The U.S. reduction target could therefore be strengthened to reflect the United States’ high capability and responsibility. The U.S. INDC commitment is equivalent to a reduction of 14 to 17% below 1990 levels by 2025 – five years before Canada reduces by 2% from 1990 levels. 

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Ten Lessons

  1. Try to do something, as the U.S. has done – rather than do as little as possible, as the Harper Government has done.
  2. Develop “flagship” policies, as the U.S. has done.
  3. Set emissions reduction targets for every province and territory.
  4. Allow for flexibility so subnational governments (provinces, cities and territories) can prioritize the most economical reductions first.
  5. Rather than make commitments with no plan to follow through on them, make international emissions reductions commitments and then have a domestic carbon budget and a plan which lines up to meet those targets, as the U.S. has done. 
  6. Make clear signals to business, as the U.S. has done, so they can plan and invest strategically for today and tomorrow; and encourage businesses to make their commitments to cut carbon and ramp up renewables.
  7. Create a comprehensive policy framework to support cleantech research and development, as the U.S. has done. Although Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia all support cleantech R&D, there is no national comprehensive policy framework to support these homegrown cleantech industries and many companies struggle to get their innovations to market.
  8. Recognize, as the U.S. has done, that transitioning to a green economy is an opportunity to create good green jobs
  9. Take responsibility to do our fair share of emission reductions as part of the global community. 
  10. Vote and elect a national leader who is committed to taking action on climate change.

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