To battle climate change, 171 nations, including Canada, ratified the Paris Agreement in 2015. This agreement obligates Canada to reduce greenhouse gas emissions dramatically — by as much as 80 per cent below 2005 levels by 2050. If we are to succeed, we’ll need to introduce dramatic changes to the way we generate and consume energy.
This is a staggering challenge. Canada emitted about 722 million tonnes (Mt) of greenhouse gases in 2015, the most recent year of data. To meet the Paris target, we must reduce emissions to about 150 Mt per year by 2050.
And if that weren’t enough of a challenge, we must do this while our population grows. Canada’s population, on average, has grown by 1.2 per cent per year since 1990. Since 2010, the nation has added about 378,000 people annually, many within already crowded cities such as Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
Statistics Canada’s mid-range projections for Canada’s population growth suggest the country will swell to 49 million residents by 2050.
Taken together, it means each Canadian must reduce their emissions from 20.2 to 3.1 tonnes per person per year. This is difficult — but not impossible. In fact, just switching from incandescent to LED lightbulbs achieves this level of reduction. The challenge is replicating this reduction across all aspects of our lives.
Canada has already ushered in a number of policies that will help us get there.
The government has introduced both a price on carbon and a Clean Fuel Standard to try to bring emissions down. These policies will undoubtedly make a difference, but they are by nature broad and lack the nuance to address sector-specific challenges.
To ensure that the 2050 target is met, Canada needs to introduce complementary policies that addresses some of our unique challenges.
Here are four target areas where policy interventions could dramatically increase our ability to hit 2050 targets:
1. More clean electricity
Reducing emissions means producing more clean electricity. In 2015, electricity generation accounted for 11 per cent of Canada’s emissions, mostly from burning coal and natural gas.
Our electricity supply has been getting cleaner every year since 1990, but if our population is expanding, we know we’ll need to produce more of it.
Most provinces, however, seem to think that electricity demand will remain constant going forward — for example, Ontario anticipates summer peak demand to remain steady at about 30 GW from 2017 until 2035.
We need to ensure that our energy policy anticipates rapid growth in electricity use over the next 30 years, and continues to phase out the use of electricity generated by fossil fuels.
2. Transforming trucking
Reducing emissions means addressing the fuels, primarily oil and gasoline, used in transportation, which accounted for 24 per cent of Canada’s emissions in 2015.
Programs like electric vehicle subsidies and biofuel mandates have helped Canada curb its use of gasoline. In the past five years, light duty vehicle emissions have dropped by about 0.4 per cent per year, and the introduction of more electric and hybrid vehicles will continue this trend.
Heavy duty transport — particularly diesel-burning transport trucks — is a different story. Government data show that the single fastest-growing source of emissions in Canada has been heavy-duty freight trucks — up an astonishing 205 per cent since 1990.
This is the result of two seismic shifts: The rise of just-in-time delivery to big-box stores and the emergence of online marketplaces, such as Amazon or Walmart. Our shopping choices have put more trucks on our roads and increased transportation-related emissions.
While carbon taxes and the new Clean Fuel Standard should help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, we need dedicated policy designed to reduce emissions associated with trucking.
3. Greener homes
Reducing emissions means building better buildings.
We are transitioning from a country dominated by single-family homes to one where multi-storey, multi-unit buildings are the rule. Heating and cooling buildings accounted for 12 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.
A building boom in many major cities has dramatically increased the emissions associated with heating and cooling our buildings — up by 17 per cent since 1990. In November 2017, about 54 per cent of housing starts in Canada were multi-storey, multi-unit buildings; single-family homes made up only 26 per cent of starts over the same period.
We need to implement building codes that aggressively reduce the emissions associated with heating and cooling both new and existing buildings, with a particular focus on tall buildings. Moreover, since buildings last for decades or centuries, it is imperative that new codes be developed and implemented quickly.
4. Rethinking fossil resources
Reducing emissions means rethinking the role of oil and gas production in our economy.
In 2015, about 26 per cent of our emissions came from oil and gas production. These emissions have risen 76 per cent over the past 25 years, as Canada experienced the highs and lows of an energy boom that brought economic prosperity across the country.
Oil and gas will continue to be valuable natural resources, but we need to think about how to use them best in a low carbon economy — for instance, could we make better plastics and materials for durable applications that lock carbon away, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere? Canada needs a strategic policy that can tailor oil and gas production pathways to meet future needs — not today’s energy mix.
In choosing to support the Paris Agreement, Canada has taken on an incredible challenge that can transform our economy — and our society — for the better. We should not back away from this challenge, but meet it head on with careful and strategic thinking.
If we’re to succeed, Canada will need an integrated, holistic suite of policies - and we need them to be in place soon, or we will have no chance of meeting our future needs.