Alberta’s climate change plan set up to fail

Timid leadership dooms the plan to failure

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CALGARY, Alta. Dec. 6, 2015/ Troy Media/ — Like many Albertans, I was initially delighted at our government’s new Climate Leadership plan. Surely, I thought, Premier Rachel Notley’s team had deftly hit the sweet spot.

The plan promises to:

  • Speed up the elimination of coal-generated electricity.
  • Price 90 per cent of carbon emissions.
  • Create a cap on greenhouse gas emissions from the oilsands.
  • Result in a big cut in methane emissions.
  • Encourage energy efficiency and energy-resilient communities.

And it was supported by some environmentalists and scions of the oilpatch.

But now, having studied the full report of the climate change panel and the provincial government’s plan, I’m much less satisfied.

Certainly a government has to consider the political climate, not just the opinions of its core voters, and that the essence of politics is compromise.

But, occasionally, crises arise that test a government’s mettle – like climate change – and demand right, not popular, action. In these circumstances, governments must educate the public and lead courageously.

The government has failed to meet this challenge.

Alberta’s emissions level in 2030 will be the same as today, although it has been estimated that, without the plan, Alberta’s emissions would grow from 267 megatonnes (MT) in 2013 to 320 megatonnes in 2030.

Just halting this projected increase in emissions is not good enough. We have a critical problem and incremental responses amount to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The Alberta Climate Change Advisory Panel points out that although “existing assets are fixed and unlikely to relocate or shut down under reasonable carbon policy . . . domestic policy which serves to shift production activity to other jurisdictions would impose disproportionately large costs on Alberta for minimal, real emissions reductions.”

In other words, we can’t curb expansion. So foot-draggers will be allowed to set the rate of progress – no oil producer should act until its competitors do.

This may be pragmatic but it is not leadership.

Even ignoring the climate plan’s complexity and need for more bureaucracy, it has let Albertans, Canada and the world down. Surely the whole point is to reduce drastically, not just stop expanding, production of fossil fuels. Even if the Holy Grail is achieved and the carbon intensity of oilsands production is cut to that of conventional oil, it will still be burned and add to the climate change that the policy is supposed to reduce.

The report says: “Many will look at these emissions reductions and claim that our policies will not place Alberta on a trajectory consistent with global 2oC goals, and in some sense this is true. The policies proposed for Alberta in this document would not, if applied in all jurisdictions in the world, lead to global goals being accomplished.”

The policy sets the greenhouse emissions cap for the oilsands a whopping 40 per cent-plus above the current amount, which is already of worldwide concern.

The document gives the game away. “The 100 Mt limit provides room for growth and development of our resource as a basis for a strong economy. Overall, Alberta’s new approach will incent changes that see the number of produced barrels increase relative to associated emissions. The future production achievable within the annual 30-Mt ‘room’ in the limit will be higher than at any time in our past or present.” (my italics)

So we’re going to fight climate change by producing more fossil fuels whose burning will add to the problem? No wonder the oilpatch is on side.

Indeed, it appears that the most carbon-efficient oilsands producers will receive more in subsidies per barrel of oil produced than they pay in carbon tax. That will have the perverse result of encouraging more production by them than if there were no carbon price at all.

The carbon price is much too low. The environment should not be a free dump for pollution. The ultimate price of goods needs to express their true cost.

But what is the true cost of carbon in the atmosphere? U. S. agencies peg “the social cost of carbon emissions today at $62 per tonne, increasing to $69 per tonne by 2020 and $110 per tonne in 2050, each in 2014 inflation-adjusted U.S.dollar terms.”

With this in mind, the Pembina Institute’s recommendation to the panel seems appropriate: “We recommend a carbon price starting at $40 per tonne of CO2 emitted in 2016, with a schedule for increasing it by $10 per tonne annually over the first 10 years of the policy. This is generally the level of stringency necessary for Alberta to make a fair contribution to Canada’s international commitments.”

Yet the panel’s recommendation was for a $30 per tonne ceiling price by 2018. Timidity personified.

I am dismayed that the report says “[w]hen compared to other leading jurisdictions, the Panel’s policies would likely lead to lower penetration rates of 2530 per cent renewable generation by 2030.”

Apparently this is because we’re going to rely on our cheap natural gas. But given that its emissions will also have to be cut in the medium term, surely a much more ambitious renewable target should have been set.

So what might have been better? A carbon tax, instead of capandtrade, offers simplicity, particularly if it is imposed across the board on activities generating greenhouse gases (including pointofsale retail). And we must stop approving new oilsands projects until the sector’s emissions are reduced enough to allow them.

Instead, we have started with policies set up for failure.

Phil Elder is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Planning Law with the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary. Phil is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

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