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‘We’re still on the bunny slopes’: As 2023 kicks off, is Canada’s climate change plan aggressive enough?

By Alexandra Mae Jones, CTVNews.ca Writer

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    Toronto, Ontario (CTV Network) — Last year, we received a dire warning from climate scientists that the world needs to make more decisive changes in order to avoid catastrophic climate change impacts – but as 2023 gets off the ground, is Canada doing everything it can to secure our future?

The federal government spent 2022 reiterating its commitment to lowering emissions and battling climate change, launching new programs and ironing out details for its plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

But details are still lacking on several points, including whether Canada will actually meet its promise to phase out “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies by 2023, and some experts say we need to be moving more confidently.

“The irony is, under the current government, we have the most comprehensive and aggressive climate policies that Canada has ever had,” Simon Donner, a climate scientist and professor at the University of British Columbia, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.

“The problem is, even what we’ve initiated at the federal level is still not nearly enough. We’ve got everything from carbon pricing to mandates for the sale of electric vehicles, they’re passing a mandate to make all electricity zero-carbon, there’s a whole bunch of incentives and investment programs. But none of it is happening fast enough. And none of it is strong enough to really accelerate emissions reductions.”

In April of 2022, the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) released a report slamming governments for their inaction on climate change, stating that to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis, world leaders need to be making drastic moves to reduce emissions now, instead of tentative plans.

The report, which found that humanity is “firmly on track toward an unlivable world,” outlined how, as a whole, current government timelines for reducing emissions simply aren’t sufficient to limit warming to the 2015 Paris agreement’s goal of 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels.

Canada was noted in the IPCC report as one of the highest per-capita emissions producers among developed countries, alongside Australia and the United States.

“The report reminded governments of what they do know, that climate change is real, we’re feeling the effects around the world, and we are not taking action nearly fast enough,” Donner said. “The world’s greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing.”

The federal government has pledged a combined $10.7 billion in new funding in 2022 across two new plans: Canada’s National Adaptation Strategy, first announced in December 2020 and released in November, which aims to help us adapt to climate impacts such as extreme weather; and the 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan, which lays out how Canada will achieve the 2030 target of reducing emissions to 40-45 per cent below 2005 emission levels.

“It is unequivocal that Canada’s climate has changed and will continue to change,” Environment and Climate Change Canada told CTVNews.ca in an emailed statement that laid out their climate plans introduced in 2022.

“The Government of Canada must keep fighting climate change but must also be better prepared for the changes Canada is already seeing and adapt to those changes that are here to stay.”

The plans have the right bones, Donner said, but he’s not convinced it’ll be enough.

“We have the right framework here in Canada,” he said. “I think of it as, like, we’ve got our skis, we’ve got our equipment and we’ve been trained, yet, we’re staying on the bunny slopes rather than using all that skills and equipment and going down a black diamond [slope].”

LINGERING QUESTIONS ON GOAL TO PHASE OUT ‘INEFFICIENT’ SUBSIDIES BY 2023 In November, Canada said it would cease new support for international fossil fuel projects by the end of 2022, a step forward that was lauded by environmental advocates.

In 2009, Canada pledged, along with other G20 countries, to “rationalize or phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies,” and in 2021 accelerated its timeline to eliminate these domestic subsidies by 2025 to 2023.

But what exactly does this mean?

The government did not directly respond to CTVNews.ca‘s request for a definition of “inefficient” in the context of fossil fuel subsidies.

Instead, it reiterated the G20 Leaders Statement from 2009 that committed countries to “phase out … inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption,” and specified that “this reform will not apply to our support for clean energy, renewables and technologies that dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

A transcript from an appearance before the standing committee on climate change in March 2022 seems to shed a bit more light on the question, stating that the G20 commitment “intentionally [contains] no definition of ‘inefficient fossil fuel subsidies,’ so that countries can define this term in the context of their national circumstances.”

It does not clarify how Canada defines this term in the context of our national circumstances.

Canada has phased out eight tax preferences for the fossil fuel sector as part of the G20 commitment so far, including phasing out accelerated capital cost allowance for oil sands by 2015, phasing out the accelerated capital cost allowance for mining by 2021 and phasing out a tax preference for small oil and gas companies to reclassify department expenses as exploration expenses by 2019.

The government also told CTVNews.ca that Canada is undergoing a peer review of inefficient fossil fuel subsidy reform under the G20 process to identify and reduce fossil fuel subsidies.

However, this isn’t news – the peer review has been ongoing since 2018, with the final report still nowhere in sight.

Six other G20 countries have already completed their peer reviews. It generally took around one to two years for those reviews, compared to Canada’s four years and counting.

Donner said that it makes little sense to drag our heels on eliminating subsidies within Canada while ending them outside of Canada.

“We’re going to eliminate it internationally but continue it at home. And those two things are not very compatible,” he said.

“I would like to just see, ‘eliminate all fossil fuel subsidies,’ full stop, and remove the word ‘inefficient.’”

Some things that could be classified as fossil fuel subsidies don’t contribute to oil and gas projects themselves, he explained, but might still fall under that umbrella, such as the government giving an oil company funding to clean up abandoned oil wells.

It would make more sense to add exceptions on a case-by-case basis after making a commitment to eliminate all fossil fuel subsidies rather than hashing out what “inefficient” means first, he said.

Although fossil fuels are a huge contributor to emissions in Canada – in 2019, the oil and gas sector made up more than a quarter of our total emissions – it’s not straightforward to move away from them.

“The biggest challenge right now, I think we have it nationally, is about what we do about our reliance on oil and gas extraction and production as an industry,” Donner said.

At COP27 this past fall, Canada wouldn’t back the inclusion of language calling for the phaseout of all fossil fuels, which would include oil and gas, with Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault saying that the federal government would receive too much pushback from provinces if they backed such a commitment.

It’s a weak argument, Julia Levin, national climate program manager for Environmental Defence, told The Canadian Press in November.

“I’d say it’s clear that the government of Canada is beholden to fossil fuel lobbyists and putting their interests ahead of public welfare,” Levin said.

But Guilbeault’s caution may not be unfounded. At a press conference Tuesday, Alberta Premier Danielle Smith expressed her displeasure with COP27 discussing “shutting down the oil and gas industry the same way that coal had been phased out.”

PROVINCIAL PUSHBACK ON CLIMATE PLANS The new year has barely begun, and already the federal government’s climate plans are causing friction.

Last week, Smith took aim at the federal government’s plan to create “just transition legislation” in order to help displaced energy workers find new jobs in a net-zero future, stating that “oil and gas – and its thousands of byproducts – will be a part of the global economy for decades,” and that Alberta isn’t interested in Ottawa interfering in its industry.

The province has been enjoying a surge in production due to the lifting of global pandemic restrictions and the war in Ukraine, and experts are projecting that oil production will be even higher in 2023.

But continued reliance on oil and gas doesn’t match the needs of the future, scientists say. A report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) that came out last fall stated that there was a “large consensus” across published studies that developing new oil and gas fields is “incompatible” in terms of achieving the 2015 Paris agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, echoing the findings of the International Energy Agency (IEA) the year prior.

After the release of the IPCC report in April, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres strongly condemned governments and corporations that are continuing to invest in fossil fuels and develop new fossil fuel projects.

“Investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure is moral and economic madness,” he said at the time.

Even if Canada ends all federal fossil fuel subsidies, that doesn’t mean there will be no public money going towards these projects – provincial subsidies play a huge role in the fossil fuel industry.

According to an IISD report published in February, the four main fossil-fuel producing provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador provided at least $4 billion in fossil fuel subsidies between 2020 and December 2021.

In May 2022, B.C. announced that it would be changing its decades-old royalty system for oil and gas firms and eliminating its deep well royalty program, its largest fossil fuel subsidy.

Alberta alone provided around $1.98 billion in fossil fuel subsidies between 2020 and the end of 2021, doubling down on the oil and gas sector as a strategy to recover from COVID-19’s economic blow.

But according to Donner, IEA models are projecting a decrease in demand for oil and gas globally over the next few decades, “particularly from Canada, for Canadian products.”

The problem is that, geographically speaking, it’s more costly to produce some oil and gas products in Canada compared to other countries, Donner said, meaning potentially diminishing returns as demand lessens and focus shifts to alternative energy sources.

On the economic side of things, “we could end up in some really costly dead ends,” Donner said.

He added that emissions “disproportionately” come from Alberta.

“But, for understandable reasons, it’s not easy to convince the Government of Alberta and many Albertans that they should change, transition from this industry that has sustained so much growth in the province for so long,” he said.

“They’re basically betting against climate action. Because if you’re saying there’s going to be increased demand for Canadian oil gas products over the next 30 years, moving towards 2050, all of the modelling says that only happens in the world where we don’t deal with climate change.”

He acknowledged that he is speaking from the bird’s-eye view of someone whose livelihood isn’t affected by these decisions.

It’s understandable that for many people, criticism of the oil and gas industry can feel threatening, and that’s what makes it so important to invest in training and jobs and prepare people for an inevitable transition in how we think about energy, he said.

“The world is serious about shifting to renewable energies,” he said. “If we don’t take the transition seriously, people in oil and gas dependent places are going to suffer. The longer we put off the transition, the harder it’s going to be.”

DOES CANADA NEED TO BE MORE AMBITIOUS? Donner, who serves on the Net-Zero Advisory Body with other independent scientists to give the government advice on how to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, said Canada’s plan hits all the right beats, but isn’t pressing hard or fast enough.

“We have a federal carbon price … but it doesn’t increase to $107 a tonne until 2030,” he said.

“We have support to help people buy electric vehicles. But it’s not in every province. We have initiatives to encourage people to put zero emissions heat pumps in their home to replace their furnaces, but it’s not enough money. And there’s not enough training for people to install. We have kind of all of the knowledge and the skills and even the framework or the policies, we just need the guts to implement them stronger.”

One example of where we could be doing more is in how we heat buildings, Donner said.

Not only are buildings one of the largest sources of emissions in Canada, but insufficient cooling or heating systems can be fatal when severe weather strikes. When hundreds died in B.C. during a heat wave in 2021, a huge contributing factor was that a vast majority of homes there do not have air conditioning.

Instead of separate furnaces and air conditioners, a push for heat pumps or district energy systems could make buildings more prepared for heat waves while lowering emissions, Donner suggested.

District energy systems provide heating and cooling to a number of buildings within a concentrated geographic area, such as a university campus or a neighbourhood, meaning the ability to lower emissions all at once for many buildings by switching to less-carbon intensive fuel. Heat pumps for individual homes use thermal energy drawn from the environment to repurpose it for both heating and cooling. Both are considered greener options for buildings.

But while the Canada Greener Homes Initiative offers homeowners a grant of up to $5,000 for installing a heat pump in their home, you must go through a licensed and trained professional to receive the grant, and not many contractors are licensed to install them, Donner said.

“Another approach that that we could use, policy-wise, is to incentivize contractors, building contractors, provide free training, and provide incentives to them,” he said.

If contractors have been trained to provide this service, they will be able to offer it to customers who otherwise wouldn’t have thought to ask because they’d never heard of it.

“It’s similar to like, if we want to encourage electric vehicles, we both have to convince people to buy them, we also have to get the companies to build.”

BUILDING A BETTER FUTURE One of the big issues is that there’s a “temporal disconnect” when we’re thinking about climate change, Donner said.

“Politically, governments have to make decisions on things that they’re not going to see the benefits of in the short term. And also, governments have to make decisions that they might not see the benefits of within their jurisdiction.”

It’s difficult to change the systems we rely on when we can’t see positive impacts right away, he said. The key is to figure out what incentives we can create today that will provide the short-term benefit needed to spur long-term change.

“This is about investing in the future. It’s not just about fighting climate change, it’s about making a better future for ourselves,” Donner said.

“The future in which we’ve dramatically reduced emissions is one in which people are healthier. The environment is healthier. And life is, on average, cheaper. But we have to invest to make that happen. It takes upfront investment of money and effort to get to that place. And what I’ve learned this year is we’re chipping away at it, but we’re just not getting it – we’re still on the bunny slopes, we need to get onto those black diamonds.”

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