Five climate issues Canada will have to tackle in 2020

From reducing car emissions to the decision over a proposed oil sands mine, here are the climate issues Canadians should have on their radar this year.

By: /
January 10, 2020
Cars drive in heavy traffic on the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto, June 29, 2015. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

Around the world, political pressure for action on climate change is growing. The fires in Australia are giving rise to an even greater sense of urgency for climate action in 2020. But even before those fires, international climate action had been growing. This past fall, hundreds of thousands of people across Canada took to the streets to demand climate action; millions did so worldwide. This type of non-violent collective mobilization is the key to political action on climate change.

Some politicians are taking note. The new Liberal minority government appears to be making the climate crisis a top priority. Never before has climate change been such a central part of a federal government’s platform.

From last fall’s throne speech, that began with a section on climate, to various pronouncements emphasizing the need for balancing the environment with the economy, so much of what this minority government does is framed around the climate crisis.

Conversations around climate change in Canada tend to dwell on carbon taxes, and on battles over pipelines getting built or not. There are, however, other important actions and policy areas that get far less attention, and that have a far greater impact on Canada’s emissions footprint, which, though small on a global level, are some of the highest in the world on a per capita basis. Advocates for the oil and gas industry point out that Canada is responsible for less than two percent of all global emissions. However, per capita emissions in Canada are the second highest in the G7 group of industrialized countries, just slightly behind the United States.

In recent years, the federal government has made progress on cutting emissions, but even under the best case scenario, Canada is forecast to fall short of the target it set for the year 2030 under the Paris climate agreement.

But that does not mean that Canada shouldn’t try. The kinds of policies governments at all levels put into place can have a direct and immediate impact on the extent to which emissions drop in the years ahead.

This is the year to do it. Last year’s federal election showed there is strong support for action on climate change in Canada. But there is also discontent in Alberta and Saskatchewan with respect to some of Ottawa’s energy and environmental policies. Political will, and policy, are required to make the shift to a low-carbon future. The federal government sees an economic opportunity in this shift, but it will have to work hard to not cause anger in those provinces.

Here are five of the more important climate issues the government must tackle on the road to a low-carbon future.

1. Decide the fate of the Frontier oil sands mine.

In spite of reductions in the carbon intensity of the oil sands, overall emissions from that industry have risen steadily, according to data from Natural Resources Canada. The oil and gas sector is still the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada and those emissions are forecast to keep going up.

Some time before March, the federal government is expected to rule on a proposed oil sands mine in Northeast Alberta. At capacity, Teck Resources’ Frontier project would produce 260,000 barrels per day.

If the Frontier mine is built, overall emissions from oil sands production would still remain below the cap imposed on the sector by the provincial government. But even if emissions stay below Alberta’s cap, more output from the oil sands makes reducing overall Canadian emissions more difficult, not less.

For environmentalists, the choice is easy. The planet, they say, simply can’t afford the Frontier project, and they’re urging the federal government to nix it.

But the government of Alberta says it needs the economic activity the resource sector brings, and the premier is counting on Ottawa to not get in the way. This leaves the federal government in a very tight spot: live up to its environmental commitments, or further alienate Canada’s energy heartland.

2. Drastically reduce emissions from cars and trucks.

Most Canadians live in provinces where electricity is largely produced from non-polluting sources. Ontario relies on nuclear, hydroelectric and wind power sources. Quebec and British Columbia generate their electricity from hydroelectric sources. Alberta still depends on coal, but the share of coal in the overall electricity mix is falling rapidly (more on that in a moment). Investments in solar are growing. They include a new $200 million wind farm southwest of Medicine Hat.

Over their life cycle, electric vehicles cut down on emissions, even when the energy used to manufacture and charge them comes from fossil fuels. Helping to get emissions from cars and trucks down to zero is one of the most important actions governments can take on climate, writes Mark Jaccard, an internationally-respected energy economist, in a new book, The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success: Overcoming Myths That Hinder Progress.

“Phase out gasoline and diesel in transportation as fast as you can,” Jaccard said in an interview with OpenCanada.

The transportation sector in Canada, which includes the cars and trucks that people drive every day, accounts for 24 percent of overall emissions, second only to oil and gas. Flipping the auto market to zero-emissions vehicles (those that are powered up by clean electricity, biofuels and perhaps even hydrogen) is one of the most tangible and effective ways for governments to drive the move to a low-emissions future.

Phase out gasoline and diesel in transportation as fast as you can.

“We have the technologies, and we know the cost,” Jaccard said. “There is a cost,” he added, “but it’s not huge, to moving people and goods with biofuels and electricity instead of gasoline and diesel.”

The government’s road map for shifting to a low-carbon future includes investments in electric vehicle technology, charging stations and public transit. Policies to price or regulate carbon are crucial to the shift as well.

3. Produce more clean power.

Just as the government must reduce emissions from cars and trucks, the same goes for generating electricity using cleaner sources — that’s a huge strategy for reducing emissions. “Phase out coal and don’t replace it all with natural gas,” Jaccard said.

Ontario’s move to eliminate its coal-fired power plants cut emissions by 17 percent between 2007 and the end of 2014. That’s equivalent to taking 7 million cars off the road, according to Clean Energy Canada.

It took a decade (2004-2014) for the transition away from coal to take place in Ontario. Canada’s most populous province no longer generates any electricity from coal. (Nova Scotia and New Brunswick still use coal to produce electricity; so too does Saskatchewan, but that province captures emissions through carbon capture and storage. Alberta has set out a decade-long timeline to wean itself off coal. British Columbia decided against investing in coal-fired power plants over a decade ago).

Coal accounts for less than nine percent of overall electricity generation in Canada. But this cheap yet highly polluting fossil fuel was responsible for over three quarters of all emissions related to electricity generation in 2017. Eliminating the use of coal to generate electricity, and not replacing it with natural gas (which emits less carbon, but is still a fossil fuel) will have a major impact on Canada’s overall emissions footprint.

4. Price emissions, regulate them, or do both.

Jaccard said there is one simple rule that applies to any policy that’s going to bring about a low-carbon future: “You either regulate or price carbon — or [emissions] won’t go down.”

Renewables like wind and solar, he said, are great — except that it’s a myth they are cheaper than fossil fuels: “Fossil fuels are fantastic, and they’re not going to stop being fantastic, and the Earth’s crust is full of them.” But if governments want to reduce the planet-warming emissions from fossil fuels, they’ve got to regulate those emissions, or put a price on them.

Pricing carbon often takes the form of taxing it, or using trading schemes between jurisdictions to limit how much emissions end up in the atmosphere. Neither approach is easy to sell politically.

In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford’s government recently killed a cap-and-trade scheme that involved Quebec and California. In Alberta, Premier Jason Kenney campaigned on rejecting a federal carbon tax and won the last provincial election in a landslide.

Some politicians burn up a lot of political capital trying to convince voters of the merits of carbon taxes. Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission estimates that carbon taxes need to be priced at $210 per tonne for Canada to meet those targets. British Columbia, which had Canada’s first economy-wide carbon tax, currently prices carbon at $40 per tonne.

But cap-and-trade schemes or carbon taxes are not the only option for reducing emissions. That’s where regulations come in.

In 2016, to facilitate the transition to a low-carbon economy, Ottawa introduced a Clean Fuel Standard. This policy is an example of a regulation that limits how much carbon can be emitted from the production and burning of fossil fuels.

The idea behind the Clean Fuel Standard is to incentivize forms of energy that emit less carbon, or no carbon at all.

Ottawa has set a two-to-three year timeline for when the full set of regulations are supposed to kick in. It’s essential for the feds to see that this crucial policy (which originated in British Columbia and California) get put into action on a national scale.

Vehicle emissions standards are another important regulation aimed at limiting pollution.

Canadian rules are aligned with US federal regulations. California has long led the pack in terms of setting stringent vehicle emissions standards. Now, the Trump administration is challenging California’s rules in court.

In 2020, the Canadian government may have to decide whether to follow California’s emissions standards, or to continue aligning Canadian standards with US federal rules. If the Trump administration has its way, those rules could be much less stringent.

5. Explain the challenge of the climate crisis, but also the opportunities.

From the invisibility of carbon dioxide in the air, to the lack of immediate gratification for taking climate action, there is a host of reasons why many people have difficulty grasping the urgency of global warming. “Indeed, a number of challenging traits make climate change a tough issue to engage with,” writes Susanne Moser, one of the foremost authorities on communicating climate change.

Unfortunately, far too much of the conversation about climate change is centered around individual actions that people can take, things like flying less or eating less meat. But such lifestyle changes, as good intentioned as they are, don’t cut deep enough.

Addressing the climate crisis requires more systematic changes – actions like decarbonizing the transportation sector and electricity generation, and appropriate policies to make those actions stick.

For politicians, being clear about the path to a low-carbon economy is crucial. The benefits of such an economy must be identified and communicated clearly as well. Those benefits include quieter cities and less smog, not to mention a more diversified economy.

“Climate-sincere politicians,” Jaccard said, are upfront and honest about the challenge, the costs, and the opportunities of taking climate action. But ultimately, he says, they know that to get emissions down, they’ll need to put a high-enough price on carbon, or to regulate it.

“Price or regulate, you don’t have to do either one — but you got to do at least one.”