Varcoe: Canada’s new climate plan is Alberta’s burden

There’s plenty of heavy lifting to be done by Canadians to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent or more by the end of this decade as the country aims to hit its climate targets.

Not all lifting will be done equally, leaving Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon to say it “disproportionately punishes the people in this province.”

Modelling contained within the new federal emissions reduction plan released this week by Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault — who met Thursday with his provincial counterpart — assesses the effect of the federal measures on the territories and provinces.

Bottom-up modelling of emissions forecasts the country will cut at least 232 megatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, although it notes other steps will be required to hit the Trudeau government’s broader target of a 40 to 45 per cent decline.

And what does the modelling tell us?

Alberta’s emissions are forecast to tumble by about 112 megatonnes.

That is a decline of 40 per cent from 2019 levels, and it makes up nearly half — 48 per cent — of the entire national emissions reduction by the end of this decade, according to the model.

“The proposed plan is a bad joke,” Premier Jason Kenney said Wednesday.

It shouldn’t come as a major surprise that provinces with large industrial sectors, such as oil and gas, are expected to make the steepest reductions in the next decade, but it also can’t be overlooked.

“It’s a big chunk of emissions — that being said, a big chunk of emissions in the country come from Alberta,” said Dale Beugin, vice-president of research at the Canadian Climate Institute, an independent national research organization.

(It’s worth noting that while Nova Scotia’s total emissions are relatively small, they’re projected to drop by a whopping 58 per cent cut from its 2019 levels.)

Alberta contributed about 38 per cent of all emissions in Canada in 2019.

The awkward question is how will these steps affect jobs and the economies in each region and sector?

And what measures will Ottawa take to assist hard-hit communities and workers caught up in the crosswinds of a global energy transition and the pressing need for climate action?

Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault.
Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault. Photo by Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters/File

Nixon met with Guilbeault in Edmonton and talked about the federal blueprint, including Alberta’s contribution.

In an interview, Nixon noted Alberta could shut down the entire oilsands tomorrow and still not meet the forecasted reduction in the federal document.

“It is not fair and it shows a real lack of understanding of the different parts of our economy of this big country,” he said.

“It disproportionately punishes the people in this province.”

In an interview, Guilbeault disagreed, saying the federal plan is ambitious but also realistic — and will ensure Albertans continue to have good jobs.

“What we have done is actually design a plan that is very fair, looking at what is needed in terms of emissions reduction for Canada to achieve its goal,” he said.

“You have sectors of the country and certain economic sectors that have decarbonized significantly and that also has to be factored in. Fairness doesn’t go only one way.

“It has to be spread across the board. And what we’ve tried to do is find that right balance.”

According to the plan, the federal government’s bottom-up modelling “provides a floor for projected emissions reduction achievable from existing climate measures, including some new measures” in the plan, providing a potential pathway to meet Canada’s targets.

Beugin said the plan is credible to deliver emissions cuts, but noted modelling is more like a compass to provide direction, rather than a precise GPS system.

“It’s not a crystal ball,” he said.

That’s an important point, but the model does speak to the question about the broader effect on a resource-powered economy.

Jobs must be at the forefront of this policy conversation in the coming months.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said it’s unfair the oil and gas sector is expected to chop emissions by more than 40 per cent, while the transportation sector — with roughly the same emissions — will cut them by a little more than 10 per cent.

“When you try to make this kind of transformational change in the space of seven years, there will be casualties,” she said Thursday.

“We need a concrete plan to support those working people.”

Alberta is the largest emitting province in the country, and they’ve gone up by 17 per cent since 2005.

The oil and gas sector, the country’s largest emitting economic sector, has seen emissions-per-barrel fall in recent years.

However, its total emissions have increased by 20 per cent since 2005 as production has climbed — creating jobs across the country and boosting provincial and federal revenues.

A flare stack lights the sky from the Imperial Oil refinery in Edmonton on Dec. 28, 2018.
A flare stack lights the sky from the Imperial Oil refinery in Edmonton on Dec. 28, 2018. Photo by Jason Franson /The Canadian Press

The broader federal plan projects emissions from the sector are projected to fall by 42 per cent below 2019 levels. Guilbeault noted total oil production is expected to increase by the end of the decade.

The federal modelling shows total oil production in the country is still forecast to grow by 2030 from 4.2 million barrels per day (bpd) to just over five million bpd, although it’s an 8.4 per cent drop from its own reference case scenario.

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan noted the province’s energy sector is being hit by broader global changes in demand and decarbonization trends, and it must adapt.

But he stressed workers will also require more assistance from Ottawa.

“Contrary to the critics, I think (the plan) has the potential to create jobs in our province,” he said.

“Albertans are being asked to shoulder a bigger share of the burden, in terms of emissions reductions, that will allow Canada to meet our targets. And supports should flow to our province accordingly.”

It’s not like the province hasn’t taken steps to curb emissions, such as phasing out coal-fired power generation. An alliance of six large oilsands producers are vowing to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

“I know there’s a perception by the Alberta government that this is a punitive approach. It’s not,” Guilbeault said. “What we’ve done is based on analysis.”

The 2030 national target is less than eight years away.

Major decisions, such as details of a federal cap on oilpatch emissions, are coming quickly.

“This is sort of the beginning of a road map . . . but the details of how we do them are still alive,” said Beugin.

“It has to happen fast, but also has to account for the question of fairness and those questions of do-ability.”

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

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