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New face for Canada in Paris: newly minted prime minister Justin Trudeau. Chris Wattie/Reuters

Canada could shed its split personality on climate change at Paris talks

Canada, paradoxically, is a leader in climate change mitigation at the same time as being one of the world’s laggards. It carries both legacies as its delegates prepare to attend the COP 21 climate change conference in Paris later this month – but with a very different government in charge.

The problem over the past 10 years or more has been that we Canadians have tended to show the ugly side of our face to the world. On top of withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol in 2011, there have been endless debates about pipelines to transport crude from the carbon-intensive oil sands and other government policies that have softened environmental protection.

Canada’s intended emissions reduction pledge going into COP 21 has also been criticized as being weak relative to the European Union, although it stands up against other industrialized countries.

On the flip side: British Columbia has successfully implemented a revenue-neutral carbon tax and Ontario has phased out coal-powered electricity generation, joining Quebec and California in a carbon-trading market to further reduce emissions.

At the urban scale, former Mayor David Miller of Toronto was chair of the C40 global climate action group of big city mayors. With respect to R&D on low-carbon technologies, Canada is a world leader in important areas such as net-zero energy buildings. Very significantly, Canada has cleaner, lower-carbon sources of electricity than most other nations, largely due to an abundance of hydropower.

The burning question is whether the newly elected Liberal government can draw upon Justin Trudeau’s hope and positivity to transform Canada’s climate file – and our relationship with the rest of the world. As a sign of the change, Trudeau’s cabinet includes a minister of Environment and Climate Change, while previous Prime Minister Stephen Harper was a well-established friend of the oil and gas industry.

Much more to do

While it seems unlikely that the Liberal government will change Canada’s intended emissions reduction commitment going into the Paris meeting, it is possible that our position coming out of the conference could be substantially different than what it might have been under former Prime Minister Harper.

I argue there are two levels on which the Liberals can make a difference. First, to improve upon Canada’s proposed commitment to cutting emissions, the Liberals should look beyond carbon financing and market-based mechanisms to consider further regulatory approaches, while leveraging government spending on infrastructure. Second, if Trudeau is bold, he could cut through the global gridlock on greenhouse gas emissions pledges by encouraging other world leaders to put extra focus on decarbonizing electricity supplies.

Tar sands in Alberta: bitumen contains oil that can be removed in a more polluting process than conventional oil wells. howlcollective/flickr, CC BY

It should be stated that achieving Canada’s proposed emissions reduction pledge of 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 is not necessarily easy. The plan to achieve the goal involves regulation that will halve the fuel consumption and emissions of cars and light trucks from 2008 to 2025, with improvements to heavy trucks too.

Further regulations will be used to reduce emissions from the oil-and-gas sector, fertilizers and chemicals, especially hydrofluorocarbons which contribute to global warming. Having already banned the construction of new coal-fired electricity generation, Canada has been considering regulation to address the efficiency of natural gas-fired electricity generation.

National carbon price?

Before being elected, Trudeau had already declared an intent to follow some of the provinces by putting a price on carbon nationally. This may well be a worthwhile strategy, but the Liberals would be wise not to get too caught up in debates over cap-and-trade versus carbon taxes. The reality is that to make the sort of reductions in emissions that are required will likely require carbon to be priced at rates like the Swedish carbon tax at approximately US$150/metric ton – more than five times higher than that in British Columbia. The bigger question is whether Canadians will accept carbon prices that are high enough to be effective.

Canada has a relatively low-carbon electricity supply because of its heavy use of hydropower. Arsenikk, CC BY

There are further regulatory measures and investment strategies that the Liberals could use in seeking to exceed the initial pledge of 30% emissions reduction. Building codes, for example, could be further enhanced – pushing for yet higher energy efficiency standards, toward net-zero buildings.

The Liberals’ election pledge to increase infrastructure investment in Canadian cities and communities also provides opportunities that the previous government failed to grasp. The infrastructure dollars can be tied to action on climate change, with an emphasis, for example, on low-carbon public transit vehicles, electric vehicles and higher standards of energy efficiency in public housing.

Canada could also be far more proactive in exploiting its remarkably low-carbon electricity supply. Most of the Canadian provinces – including the three most populous: British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec – rely extensively on hydropower, other renewables and some nuclear in the case of Ontario. This is potentially a huge economic advantage for Canada as we move to a carbon-constrained world.

Electricity is also the key sector for reducing greenhouse gas emissions globally. Electricity already accounts for about 30% of emissions in developed countries, and global electricity use will continue to rise, as it is strongly linked to economic growth.

Electrification is the most important strategy for deep decarbonization. This involves replacing fossil-fuel powered engines and furnaces, for example, with electric devices such as electric vehicles and heat pumps. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, however, are only reduced if the electricity comes from suitably low-carbon sources – such as we have in most Canadian provinces.

Pushing cleaner electrification

At COP 21, countries will be negotiating over their future permitted total national GHG emissions, using metric tons of CO2 equivalents emitted by a country as the most important measurement.

Elsewhere I have argued that there is another universal metric – the carbon intensity of electricity supply – that nations should also use to inform their progress in addressing climate change. The carbon intensity is the amount of emissions produced per unit of electricity generation.

Canada could go beyond merely touting that we are a world leader in clean electricity generation; it could make pledges to further reduce the carbon intensity of electricity supply – and encourage others to follow suit.

When Justin Trudeau goes to Paris, we can expect him to do a far better job at communicating the positive side of Canada’s actions to address climate change. That said, there is no hiding from the fact that Canada has among the world’s highest GHG emissions per capita.

To be seen favorably in the eyes of the world, Canada will have to go beyond its 30% pledge – and perhaps the Liberals can do that by leveraging its platform on infrastructure spending. But Trudeau potentially could go further – extending Canada’s position as a generator of low-carbon electricity as an input for negotiations.

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