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Oilsands development in northern Alberta, Canada.
© chris kolaczan/Shutterstock
20 May 2015 8:00

Mismatched graph creates confusion in Canada’s UN climate pledge

Sophie Yeo


Sophie Yeo

20.05.2015 | 8:00am
COP21 ParisMismatched graph creates confusion in Canada’s UN climate pledge

21.05.15 – Updated with response from Environment Canada, and details of new assessments of Canada’s INDC by other organisations.

Canada has submitted its intended contribution to the UN’s forthcoming climate deal, but its new target has done little to remedy its reputation as a climate laggard.

On Friday, prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government pledged to cut emissions 30% on 2005 levels by 2030, as part of its intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) ahead of the 2015 agreement, which will be signed in Paris.

The document states:

“This target is ambitious but achievable. It represents a substantial reduction from Canada’s business-as-usual emissions.”

But the target prompted an outpouring of disappointment from NGOs, who say that the target compared unfavourably with other developed countries that have also submitted their contributions.

While the EU has pledged to reduce emissions 40% below 1990 levels, Canada’s target actually represents a 6% increase if this is taken as the baseline.

Meanwhile the US has pledged a 26-28% reduction by 2025 on 2005 levels. Analysts from the World Resources Institute wrote:

“Unfortunately, Canada’s level of mitigation would put it – the world’s ninth largest emitter – noticeably behind its peers in terms of how fast it aims to decarbonize in the post-2020 period.”

Others questioned whether Canada would be able to even achieve its target, given its current lacklustre approach towards emissions reductions and its vigorous pursuit of highly polluting oil sands. Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted :

“Wouldn’t Canada’s new INDC have been more powerful had the target been weaker? 30% cut by 2030 stretches credibility given policy situation.”

Low ambition

Canada cemented its reputation as a renegade of climate policy when it withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, the UN’s only legally binding climate treaty, in 2011.

Like other countries, Canada’s emissions dipped in 2008 in the wake of the global financial crisis. Since then, its emissions have been flatlining.

The government then agreed in 2010 to a non-binding target to reduce emissions 17% by 2020 based on 2005 levels.

According to Climate Action Tracker, Canada is set to miss this by “a wide margin” based on current policy projections. While the INDC showcases Canadian climate policy to date, it offers little in the way of new future efforts to tackle climate change.

With another attempt at striking a UN climate deal scheduled for December, all countries have been asked to submit plans on how they will reduce their greenhouse gas emissions after 2020. These plans are called “intended nationally determined contributions”, or INDCs.

According to Canada’s INDC, a 30% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 marks a significant deviation from how its emissions would be projected to grow in the absence of current policies, as the graph below shows.

Canada Emissions Under 2030 Target

Source: Canada’s INDC

Yet this graph, which shows emissions in 2030 as below 1990 levels, appears to paint an incorrect picture of Canada’s own intended target.

The black line in this graph appears to be based on emissions data excluding land use and forestry, which Canada has included in its target.

If these sectors are included, Canada’s 30% reduction on 2005 levels would leave total emissions in 2030 higher by 6% than they were in 1990, as the following graph demonstrates.

Screen Shot 2015-05-20 At 09.08.30

Canada’s emissions, including land use and forestry. The red line indicates Canada’s historic emissions, and the blue dotted line indicates its trajectory until 2030 based on its target of a 30% reduction on 2005 levels. Source: Carbon Brief, using UNFCCC data

Carbon Brief has asked Canada’s environment ministry to explain the disparity, and will update this article if we receive a response.*

What’s more, to achieve a 30% reduction in emissions by 2030, Canada would have to reduce its emissions by 1.7% a year after 2020, according to analysis by the World Resources Institute.

This compares unfavourably to the EU and the US, both of which would have to reduce their emissions by 2.8% to hit their respective targets, says WRI.

Unlike the EU, which peaked its emissions in 1979, Canada has yet to significantly reduce its emissions outside of a recession year.

Land use

Like the EU, US and potentially Russia, the government has said that emissions from its land use sector will count towards its 2030 climate target.

Forests and other natural landscapes absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, but can release these stores back into the atmosphere if they are destroyed or degraded. How a country uses its land, therefore, has a direct impact on its carbon footprint.

In Canada, land use is a net contributor to their overall emissions. A recent study by the World Resources Institute revealed that Canada is losing its tree cover faster than every other country, bar Russia.

Co 2-canada -usa -graph

Emissions from land use and forestry from 1990-2012. Negative emissions show carbon is being stored in plants or soils. Source: Carbon Brief, using UNFCCC data

In the US, on the other hand, land use absorbs the equivalent of around 13% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions every year, according to estimates from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

But Canada’s higher land use emissions does not mean that it will face an especially tough ride compared to its neighbour in the US. This is because both countries have said they will use a “net-net” approach when counting their land use emissions.

Instead of counting the emissions removed automatically each year by the land sector among their mitigation efforts, this means that they will calculate their land use emissions based on how far they have deviated from their 2005 baseline.

The US has seen its land use emissions rise since 2005, and, therefore, will be an added burden in meeting its emissions reduction targets. In Canada, there has been no clear trend, which renders it difficult to draw conclusions about the implications for the rest of the economy.

Canada -usa

Emissions from land use and forestry for the US and Canada, compared to a 2005 baseline. Source: Carbon Brief, using UNFCCC data

Russia and the EU have not explained how they will count their land use emissions, leaving uncertainty over their overall levels of ambition.


Canada has included the option to use carbon credits, which means that it could buy emissions reductions from abroad, instead of making them domestically.

This contrasts with the approach of the EU and the US, which both pledged to make their promised emissions cuts on home territory.

Canada has not indicated the extent to which it might make use of mechanisms which allow it to buy overseas emissions reductions.

The more it makes use of such schemes, which include the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism, the less pressure the government faces to reform its own polluting sectors at home.

Oil sands

While an INDC is not intended to be a blueprint for how a country will achieve its emissions, Canada’s determination to exploit its oil sands has prompted scepticism over whether the government is sincere about achieving its climate goals.

In 2011, Canadian oil sands were responsible for 8% of the country’s emissions, and 0.15% of all emissions globally. It is also an expanding sector, with their extraction contributing 36% of the growth in Canada’s total emissions between 1990 and 2011, according to the Albertan government – more than transport.

Canada will take a “sector-by-sector regulatory approach” to emissions reductions, says the INDC.

Oil sands are largely overlooked in the four-page submission, which lists actions that Canada will take to force down emissions, although it nods towards investments in “innovative production technologies” that will “drive further improvements in environmental performance in the oil sands”.

The government has also promised to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, which contribute between 0% to 9% of total greenhouse gas emissions from oil sands production, according to a 2011 paper.

Joe Arvai, professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan, and an author of a 2014 Nature article on oil sands, tells Carbon Brief:

“While it’s true that Canada emits greenhouse gases across a wide range of economic sectors, what people are watching most closely is the oil sands. And, because oil is Canada’s current poster child for international exports, and the lifeblood of Stephen Harper’s economic vision, a failure to address greenhouse gas emissions here will do nothing but hurt Canada’s credibility when it comes to climate change on the international stage.”

Regional vs federal

Local ambition could help Canada to reach its 30% target, and the INDC acknowledges the role that the provinces will play in taking the country towards its target. It says:

“Canadian provinces and territories have jurisdictional authorities over the fields of natural resources, energy, and many aspects of the environment.”

In many cases, the federal government has been outstripped by regions, which are moving ahead to implement climate change policies.

Earlier this month, the province of Ontario set a target to reduce its regional emissions 37% by 2030 on 1990 levels – a steep improvement upon the national target. British Columbia and Quebec have both implemented a carbon tax.

Meanwhile, investors were warned to steer clear of oil sands after the New Democratic Party ousted the Conservatives after a 44-year stint in power in Alberta, where these resources are concentrated.

But while provinces will carry responsibility for regional targets and some of the enforcement, it remains the central government’s role to provide the direction, Arvai tells Carbon Brief:

“At the end of the day, the federal government is setting the tone on what they’d like to see.  Assume for a second that the Progressive Conservatives were still in power in Alberta; a strong signal from the feds about getting serious on greenhouse gases from the oil sands would have been taken seriously.  It would have given the provincial government some much-needed license to do the things the NDP [New Democratic Party] can now do via their landslide election victory and, as a result, their mandate for reform.”

With federal elections taking place in October, it is also possible that Canada could see a shift in political priorities ahead of the UN’s climate summit this December, where the UN’s new agreement is set to be signed.

Despite the government’s protestation that their INDC is “aligned with Canada’s major economic partners, like the United States”, the small print suggests that the nation is still lagging behind other developed countries in terms of climate ambition.

Historically, Canada has not shown a great deal of concern for overturning its reputation as a climate laggard. Disappointed observers may have to turn to the provinces if they want more ambitious emissions reductions in the future.


*Update – 21 May 2015

In an email to Carbon Brief, Canada’s environment ministry said that its target means it will have reduced its emissions to 524 megatonnes a year by 2030.

This represents around a 1% increase on what Canada said it was emitting in 1990, including its emissions from land use and forestry, and an 11% reduction on 1990 if these are excluded. There remains some possible leeway in this for emissions from “natural disturbances”, such as wildfires, which the government has said it will exclude.

Other organisations have also released their verdict on Canada’s INDC.

Climate Action Tracker ranks Canada’s pledge as “inadequate”, and says that it is likely to miss it in any case. Using alternative assumptions to Carbon Brief, it concludes that its target would amount to a 2% decrease on 1990 levels. They point out that, once Canada’s expected credits from forestry are excluded. The target amounts to only a 21% reduction on 2005 levels for the rest of the economy.

Analysts at PwC have delivered a more positive verdict on Canada’s INDC. Instead of measuring emissions reductions according to baselines, they have measured how far Canada will need to reduce the volume of greenhouse gases emitted per million dollars of GDP – known as its carbon intensity.

This puts the focus on the change in effort required to hit the target, rather than the absolute level of emissions reductions.

To hit its 30% target, Canada will have to reduce its carbon intensity by 3.9% per year, up by 2.3 percentage points from its current rate of 1.6%. This suggests Canada will have to make a greater effort to reach its target than the EU or the US, which PwC says will have to increase their annual rates of carbon intensity improvement by less than 2 percentage points.


Source: PwC analysis

These conflicting views of Canada’s 2030 target perhaps do less to resolve its overall level ambition than they do to show the complex nature of INDCs. It is worth noting that Canada is not alone in its ambiguity – Russia threw up a similar raft of difficulties.

Issues such as different baselines, target years and accounting rules for land use and forestry mean that it will be difficult to assess the aggregate impacts of national contributions to the UN’s climate deal. This is a task that the UN has promised to carry out in October.

Main image: Oilsands development in northern Alberta, Canada.
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