Canada’s path to net-zero emissions covered with subsidies for fossil fuels

In contradictory moves, the Prime Minister has promised a steady reduction in carbon emission by 2050, while increasing subsidies for oil to increase production.
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Somewhere in our collective Canadian memory, we have buried the fact that Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011, when it became evident that it wouldn’t be able to meet its 2012 carbon emission reduction targets. Rather, Canada has created a clean, green image of itself globally and is seen as a climate champion even though it has missed every single carbon emission reduction target ever set either by the Kyoto Protocol, or the Paris Agreement, according to Ecojustice. 

Canada was required to cut its emissions by 6% from 1990 levels, but by the 2011 conference in Durban, South Africa, Canada’s emissions had increased by 17% to 702 megatonnes from 600. Kyoto Protocol was a legally binding treaty and withdrawing from the agreement saved Canada from purchasing carbon emission permits from other countries costing $14 billion, as per the treaty’s rules. 

New carbon emission reduction promises are made every year, and unfortunately for the planet, every year Canada has failed to meet them. Most recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau revealed his plan to bring Canada’s emission to net-zero by 2050. Net-zero means that all emissions produced are absorbed either through natural or technological means, which we haven’t yet developed. 

If passed, the Canadian Net-zero Emissions Accountability Act will set a legally binding process to reach net-zero emissions; set carbon emission reduction targets every five years and require the government to achieve them and report on their progress; and also establish an independent advisory body to advise on the most strategic path to meet the 2050 net-zero goal. 

The bill, however, has been criticized for not setting any punitive measures if these goals aren’t met. According to Karinne Lantz, a PhD student and Assistant Professor at the Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University, punitive measures provide the government with an incentive to actually meet its target. 

“Historically, we have an issue with governments setting targets but then not making substantial efforts to meet these targets,” Lantz told me over email. The government overshot its targets by 19% in 2000, by 23% in 2012, by 15% in 2020, and is on track to overshoot its 2025 target as well, The Conversation reported. A penalty of some sort would compel the government to actually fulfill their promises. 

So while the Trudeau government has tabled a bill to bring Canada to net-zero emissions by 2050, it has also participated in steadily increasing Canada’s oil production, said Julia Levin, a Program Manager at Environmental Defence Canada. The irony can’t be better described than when he gave the go-ahead to the Trans Mountain pipeline the day after he declared a climate emergency in Canada. “This year was a fluke and production dropped,” she added. 

In 2018, Canada was the world’s fourth largest producer of petroleum, and produced 5.3 million barrels of oil a day, producing 300,000 barrels more per day than in 2017, according to the US Energy Information Administration data. In 2008, Canada produced at least three million barrels per day, and by 2014 it was producing more than  four million barrels per day. 

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers project that production will continue to increase by 1.27 million barrels per day by 2035, at a 3% increase every year until 2021, and by 1% after that. Jude Clemente, reporting for Forbes, wrote that Canada will be responsible for 25% of the global crude oil supply by 2050. 

Canada’s participation in increased oil production becomes even more evident when we look at subsidies. According to Oil Change International and Friends of the Earth latest report, Canada has been doling out a minimum of $13.8 billion a year to oil and gas projects since the Paris Climate Agreement began 2016. This is the second-highest amount after China, and the highest per capita among G20 countries. 

Subsidies aid in increasing the production of fossil fuels. “That’s the purpose of subsidies,” said Levin. 

Declaring a climate emergency, creating an independent body to offer suggestions on how to reach net-zero emissions, sitting down for a tête-à-tête with Greta Thunberg are all easy moves for the government. What is hard is laying down direct, short-term, perhaps ‘unsexy’ targets, and even punitive measures to encourage governments to comply. 

“Legislation [with penalties] also increases the potential for a court to order a government to do more if it does not meet its obligation,” said Lantz. 

Canada, as the second-fastest warming country on the planet, has a long way to go and the Prime Minister needs to step up and put his money where his mouth is. Quite literally. Starting with phasing out subsidies for fossil fuels, as promised back in 2009, without commitments to new ones. 

Ultimately, let’s get one thing straight – we cannot tackle the climate emergency if we keep appeasing and crumbling under the pressure of oil lobbyists. As Levin writes, even continuing with business as usual, Canada has enough oil to meet its exports. So the government should use this time to set achievable tasks to get it closer to its net-zero emissions goal by 2025. 

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