Alberta’s climate-change “plan”

I guess it’s officially a “strategy,” but it comes across as more of a “wish list,” not unlike the federal government’s.

The promise is to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 14 per cent from 2005 levels by 2050. That’s a relatively mild target, compared to what climate scientists say we need to do, but even so there’s no obvious mechanism to make sure this actually happens. The newly released strategy from the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Ed Stelmach talks a great deal about investing in carbon-sequestration (capturing and burying carbon-dioxide emissions, that is), but doesn’t describe a means of making major emitters adopt the practice.

Here’s the news release and here’s the document itself (PDF), complete with lovely full-colour images of wheat waving in the wind, close-ups of leaves and images of … chopped-down timber, it looks like, on page 22. (Somebody send down to the stock-photo library for a substitute, would you?)

Alberta’s in an exquisitely difficult position, having a roaring economy that’s almost totally dependent on extracting carbon-producing fossil fuels in an energy-intense (and therefore highly carbon-emitting) way. Alternative sources of power are a long way off and won’t easily displace the cheap natural gas that’s used to fire the boilers that separate oil from sand in the oilsands.

Here’s a generous way to look at Alberta’s position, if you want one. The province’s oil reserves are only worth exploiting if prices are high, and prices are high because supplies are getting tighter while demand is expanding. If Alberta’s oil economy is to continue growing, it’ll be because other oil-exporters are running low, which will mean less overall pumping and refining and burning in the world, even if more of the supply comes from Alberta in particular. Therefore, if Alberta makes its oil economy more ecologically friendly and takes over an increasing share of the world’s production, its own emissions can rise while at the same time representing a net global decline.

One likely flaw in this reasoning is that whatever their other problems, conventional oil producers like Saudia Arabia and Nigeria are probably less environmentally damaging than Alberta is, so maybe we’ll keep doing the same amount of damage, globally speaking, to extract less oil. The truth is, oilsands oil is bad news for everybody except Albertans.Deep cuts to emissions would certainly mean deep economic damage, and Alberta voters wouldn’t likely stand for it. So there’s only so much an Alberta government can realistically do and expect to not get crushed at the polls.

Nevertheless, I’d think it would be more than this.

While Alberta’s latest greenhouse-gas plan talks about an emissions cut of 14 per cent below 2005 levels, most of its graphs and whatnot use a “business-as-usual” baseline for 2050 emissions to make the province’s projected cuts look more impressive. Taking them at their word, Stelmach’s government promises to cut 24 megatonnes of emissions through conservation in regular old power use, 37 megatonnes through greener energy sources, and 139 megatonnes through carbon sequestration by major emitters.

What’s missing, as I say, is the mechanism. How are major emitters to be made to capture all that carbon? The strategy is silent. No dollar figure for government spending is included in the plan, no discussion of carbon taxes or a cap-and-trade scheme. Alberta already charges major emitters $15 per tonne of carbon emissions beyond a  high ceiling, but there’s no way that’s going to produce the kind of changes the government purports to be planning. The last page of the strategy promises implementation plans in the coming months, although it also declares that “Most importantly, this plan is about actions not words.”

Just, uh, stay tuned for the actions.

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