As America Doubles Down on Climate Targets, Canada Stays Quiet


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As America Doubles Down on Climate Targets, Canada Stays Quiet

Can you hear the awkward silence? That's the sound of government not releasing an annual report on Canada's carbon emission trends amid news that America and China have both made ambitious commitments to curb climate change.

Photo of Barack Obama and Stephen Harper, via WikiMedia Commons.

​Can you hear the awkward silence? That's the sound of Environment Canada not releasing its annual report on national carbon emission trends, amid news that America and China have both made ambitious commitments to curb climate change.

​Late Tuesday night, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced a surprise agreement to reduce carbon pollution over the next few decades. America is aiming to get emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2025. China intends to "peak" its carbon emissions before 2030, and acquire 20 percent of its total energy from zero-emission sources by the same deadline.


As the two biggest polluters in the world (producing 18 and 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, respectively) the US-China deal has been branded a ​game-changer. America's pledge goes well beyond the 17 percent reduction by 2020 set by both Canada and the US, nearly doubling the pace of the country's pollution cutbacks.

Meanwhile, Canada has been pretty much ignoring its carbon targets, perhaps hoping nobody will notice. Our Prime Minister didn't attend the UN's climate summit in September, despite being in New York City at the time. Just last week, the president of France called us out for ignoring climate until the last possible minute:

"We would like to avoid what happened in Denmark, in Copenhagen, where the heads of state and governments thought they could reach an agreement in the very few, last few hours. This is not possible," said French President Francois Hollande in Canada's parliament last week, well ahead of final climate negotiations scheduled for Paris in 2015. "We have to find an agreement within the coming months."

On October 25 last year, Environment Canada released a report showing Canada is expected to miss its climate target of 17 percent less emissions, by a margin of 122 megatonnes in 2020. This year, October 25 came and went without a peep about climate from our environmental regulator, despite growing international concerns about how to regulate our massively-expanding oil sands industry. According to media relations officer Christine Roger, Environment Canada's carbon trend report "is currently being prepared and will be released in due course."


"There have been some gains in Canada—the coal phase-out in Ontario, the carbon tax in BC—some smaller provinces have made gains too, but all of that has been wiped out by growth in emissions in our oil sands sector," says Chris Severson-Baker, managing director of the Calgary-based Pembina Institute, an environmental group that works with big business. That same trend report from last year showed oil sands emissions are currently set to double from 55 megatonnes in 2011 to 101 megatonnes in 2020.

The federal government of Canada doesn't currently regulate oil sands emissions whatsoever. We literally have no nation-wide rules on this stuff. The province of Alberta has some rules (to reduce the "intensity" of production by 12 percent, more on that later) but for nearly eight years the feds have been tied up in closed-door consultations with industry, setting no targets, extending deadlines on and on to infinity. "There's always been a sense that oil and gas regulations are being discussed and will be announced," says Severson-Baker. "That's been going on between five and seven years."​

​Photo from the People's Climate March in September, when thousands of Canadians in Vancouver protested Canada's environmental policy in solidarity with over 300,000 in New York City, ​via Flickr user doucy.

​Alberta first started regulating oil sands emissions in 2007. It's regulated on an "intensity" program, which means if you produce and sell three times more bitumen, you're allowed to emit three times more carbon, as long as it's 12 percent more efficient. As of 2012, total emissions from Alberta have exceeded 249 megatonnes. The province is supposed to renew these regulations by the end of the year, but as in previous years, Severson-Baker says that deadline is likely to get pushed.

Of course, the latest United Nations intergovernmental report on climate change clearly states this is no time for extended deadlines, given that we're on the brink of irreversible damage and all:

"Our assessment finds that the atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amount of snow and ice has diminished, sea level has risen and the concentration of carbon dioxide has increased to a level unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years," writes IPCC research co-chair Thomas Stocker in a November 2 statement. "We have little time before the window of opportunity to stay within 2ºC of warming closes. To keep a good chance of staying below 2ºC, and at manageable costs, our emissions should drop by 40 to 70 percent globally between 2010 and 2050, falling to zero or below by 2100."

Environmentalists are hoping this US-China agreement will disrupt Canada's ignore-and-deflect strategy. "Every time the climate issue is raised, we say we can't do anything because of competitiveness," says Severson-Baker. "With this announcement, two of the biggest economies in the world are showing they're interested in taking leadership on climate change, which removes any excuses that Canada might have for failing to take the kind of steps that are necessary."

Having locked most of our recent climate commitments into US policy, Canada may have no choice but to follow along. At the UN climate summit in New York, in front of 125 world leaders minus Harper, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq pledged to at least ​match American vehicle-emissions standards. While Canada only accounts for 2 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, we may not get away with being one of the worst per-capita emitters for much longer.