The Canadian government’s policies on greenhouse gases will more or less freeze the country’s emissions at 2007 levels over time, according to experts at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia (PDF). Not bad, except that the governing Conservatives say their goal is to get emissions down 20 per cent by 2020 and 65 per cent by 2050.
In a paper written for the C.D. Howe Institute, a centre-right think tank, SFU professor Mark Jaccard — about as serious an environmental economist as Canada has — and grad student Nic Rivers run the numbers. Even using some assumptions that tend to nudge the numbers in the Conservatives’ favour, they find the government’s policies don’t come anywhere close to its stated goals, let alone to the dramatic cuts in emissions that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s constellations of scientists say are needed to stave off the worst effects of climate change.
Something really significant was missing from the Conservatives’ big climate-change document (PDF) when it was released April 26: exactly what the Tories’ models said their proposed emissions-cutting measures would do. There were policies, and there were targets that Environment Minister John Baird swore up and down Canada would meet, and there was no material bridging the gap between them.
The policies came in for a lot of criticism from environmentalists, including me. The major problem is that while they set limits on how much greenhouse gas heavy industry could emit, the limits are intensity-based, not absolute. As long as you’re growing, in other words, you can keep emitting more, as long as you’re getting more efficient in each unit of production (one barrel of oil or one pair of shoes or a truckload of cement or whatever). That dramatically reduces the pressure to make significant changes, particularly since the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gases in Canada are the western oilsands, which are growing at a phenomenal rate and are expected to triple or quadruple production in the next 10 years or so.
Well, Jaccard and Rivers are figuring out what that weakness really means.
For context, remember that Canada’s current emissions today are about 750 megatonnes of carbon dioxide and its equivalents.
Current policies are likely to reduce emissions substantially compared to their business-as-usual evolution. By 2020, emissions would be 120 megatonnes below projected levels and by 2050 the reduction would be almost 400 megatonnes below the business-as-usual projection. However, the results also indicate that overall emissions in Canada are unlikely to fall below current levels. The government is likely to miss its 2020 emissions target by almost 200 megatonnes. Moreover, because of this gap in 2020 between target and reality, it is unlikely that a future government would be able to achieve the ambitious 2050 target.
So not only is the Conservatives’ plan not enough, it’ll be bad enough to tie the hands of future governments trying to clean up the mess they leave. Ironically, this is exactly the explanation the Tories use for why their targets, the ones they’re going to miss according to Jaccard and Rivers, are comparatively mild.
The assumptions the writers make that benefit the Tories are twofold. First, they assume that the Conservatives — if they stayed in power — would extend the policies that they’ve plotted out to 2020 for 30 years after that, ordering an annual cut in industrial emissions intensity of two per cent a year until 2050. Second, they assume the Conservatives will adopt California’s tough emissions standards for cars, which they’ve made vague noises about but not actually done. Between them, these assumptions account for about 330 megatonnes of the 388-megatonne emissions cut that Jaccard and Rivers forecast by 2050, compared to the business-as-usual projections.
(By the way, whenever you’re assessing anything Environment Minister John Baird says about emissions cuts, make sure he’s being clear about what his baseline is. A 400-megatonne cut in emissions from today’s levels would be very significant; a 400-megatonne cut from the levels projected for 2050 if we did nothing at all is good but far from enough.)
The rest of the menu of Tory regulations and subsidies and whatnot, the long list they like to trot out when people say they’re doing nothing, the EcoENERGY and EcoTRANSPORT and EcoAGRICULTURE and EcoTRUST plans — all together, a cut of 30 megatonnes by 2050. Effectively squat, Jaccard and Rivers say.
Now, projecting anything 43 years out is a pretty foolish thing to do. Weird things happen. Technological breakthroughs burst upon the scene, a Krakatoa erupts and obscures the sun, the nature of the economy shifts, aliens descend from space. God only knows what will throw your forecasts off.
The point here, though, is that Jaccard and Rivers are using the same assumptions the government is, and they’re saying the government’s full of it.
(Photo of Mark Jaccard cribbed from a Simon Fraser University PR page.)