Where is a voice of conscience?
Over 85% of the emissions from every barrel of oil we produce in Canada occurs after we export our oil, when it is burned as fuel in cars and trucks (“downstream emissions”) and released as tailpipe emissions. The downstream emissions from our exported oil are currently more than 700 Mt annually. Although the government does not normally publish the data, in response to a formal petition by Ecojustice Canada demanding answers to a series of specific questions, Environment Canada recently disclosed that emissions from combustion of our exported crude oil in the years 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 were 577.0, 601.5, 682.4, and 706.9 Mt CO2 respectively.*
In comparison, Canada’s total domestic emissions were 738 Mt in 2019.
Environment Canada also disclosed that total downstream combustion emissions from all types of exported fossil fuel by Canada (oil, natural gas, and coal) reached 954.3 Mt CO2 in 2019.
If Canada’s oil production expands by another 22% to 2030, as Canada’s new Emissions Reduction Plan projects, we estimate “exported emissions” from our oil production alone will rise by about 140 Mt to around 840 Mt. That increase in our downstream emissions will offset about half of our entire promised domestic emissions reductions to 2030. The projected 30% production growth to 2040 will further increase the downstream share from oil exports to about 900 Mt.
A year ago, the Federal Government appointed the “Net-Zero Advisory Body”, which comprises 11 individuals selected by the Minister to give “independent advice with respect to achieving net-zero by 2050”.
On March 29, 2022, the government released Canada’s 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP). The “emissions reduction target” for 2030 promises new climate policies that the government says will reduce our domestic emissions 40% by 2030, down to an estimated 443 million tonnes (Mt), which the report calls our “notional pathway to 2030”. As noted above, our emissions reached 738 Mt in 2019. Between 2005 and 2019, we cut our national emissions by 8 Mt in total, a reduction of 0.5% over fourteen years.
Yet, set sharply against that picture of promised deep emissions reductions within Canada over the next nine years, this same plan incorporates a detailed plan by our government to continue increasing Canada’s oil production to 2030, a 22% increase in our oil production over the next nine years.
Canada’s declared plan to continue expanding our oil production directly contradicts all recent international reports and analyses by climate scientists that have examined the climate implications of current levels of global oil production. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) “Net-Zero Scenario”, published on May 18, 2021, is the leading study that has warned of the rapid pace and severity of the deep cuts in oil consumption needed by 2030 and by 2040 to give the world even a 50-50 chance to keep the heating of the earth to within the 1.5°C threshold. It concluded that an immediate 25% cut in global oil production will be required by 2030, and that a 50% reduction must be achieved by 2040 – and a 75% reduction by 2050.
Another clear warning was given October 20, 2021, when the UN Environmental Programme and the Stockholm Environmental Institute released their Production Gap Report 2021, which confirms the tragic disconnect between existing plans by the world’s major fossil fuel producing countries (including Canada) to continue expanding production levels and the desperate need to start reductions. In the case of oil production, the center graph below shows that based on oil producing countries’ current plans, between now and 2030 the gap will widen between the deep production decline required to be consistent with the 1.5°C pathway (the bottom diagonal line) and the current expansionary pathway (the top red line).
The Production Gap Report concluded that “the world’s governments plan to produce more than twice the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C”. In the specific case of oil production, it states:
Nations are, in aggregate, planning on producing around 40 million barrels per day (Mb/d) more oil than would be consistent with the median 1.5°C pathway in 2030 (with a range of 26-56 Mb/d). This excess is roughly equivalent to half of current global oil production.— Production Gap Report, October 20, 2021, p. 15-16
In the case of Canada, our currently projected oil production by 2040 will be 30% above our production level in 2019. In contrast, the IEA’s “Net-Zero Scenario”, which is aligned with meeting the 1.5°C goal, would require a massive 50% cut by 2040.
Canada’s government refuses to talk about this fundamental contradiction. It refuses to talk about curbing oil production.
Canada’s new Emissions Reduction Plan promises that by using technology we will reduce the volume of emissions released into the atmosphere during oil extraction activities inside Canada’s borders (referred to as our “upstream emissions”). But upstream emissions comprise only about 15% or less of the total amount of emissions from every barrel of oil we produce and export. Over 85% of the emissions from every barrel occurs after we export our oil, when it is burned as fuel in cars and trucks (“downstream emissions”) and released as tailpipe emissions.
On October 27, 2021, Canada’s Environment Minister declared: “We are not trying to cap production. We will be capping the amount of pollution that comes from those sectors.” The ERP document confirms that none of the government’s proposed new policies, including the large-scale deployment of Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) technology in the oil sands industry, are intended to bring about any decline in the currently projected growth of Canada’s oil production:
The intent of the cap is not to bring reductions in production that are not driven by declines in global demand.— 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan, March 29, 2022, p.53 (emphasis added)
A plan that is limited solely to “capping” the volume of upstream emissions during the production process in Canada – but allows our oil production and exports to continue to grow untrammeled over the next eight years and after – is not aligned with meeting the 1.5°C goal.
On February 9, 2022, Dan Wicklum, one of the two co-chairs of the Advisory Body, testified before a Parliamentary Committee about the proposed cap on emissions in the oil and gas sector. Asked about whether the Advisory Body had any views about whether there was also a need for a cap on oil production, Wicklum assured the Committee that “we [the Advisory Body] do not have an opinion on that”; “we are not going to talk about production”; and “that is not our mandate”.
On March 21, 2022, the Advisory Body reaffirmed its extraordinary abdication of responsibility. It published a statement of what it describes as its “key guiding principles” that should apply to “emissions reductions in the oil and gas sector”. The group’s commentary does not mention the government’s plans to continue increasing Canada’s oil production for another 10 or 20 years and omits any reference to the massive and rising volume of downstream emissions that will be released into the atmosphere from Canada’s growing oil exports. The Advisory Body simply states that “exported emissions are excluded” from its mandate. The Advisory Body has chosen to remain silent on the most dangerous and most threatening issue in Canada’s climate policy, namely the future path of our oil production, the one issue that, in terms of Canada’s contribution to global emissions, will more than anything else determine our fate. Imagine if the Advisory Body had included, among its eleven appointed members, a voice of conscience.
Simon Donner is the only climate scientist serving as a member of the Net-Zero Advisory Body. Here is a link to the June 10, 2022 letter we sent to Dr. Donner addressing the position taken by the Advisory Body on Canada’s expanding oil production.
Click the yellow button to get the letter (opens as a PDF in your browser).
* The Environment Canada data obtained by Ecojustice showing downstream emissions from Canada’s exported crude oil is available at https://www.nationalobserver.com/2021/07/27/opinion/canada-hidden-fossil-fuel-emissions-avoid-climate-catastrophe. Multiple studies are available showing that the current plans by the world’s major oil suppliers to continue expanding oil production to 2030 and beyond are incompatible with any chance to meet the 1.5°C goal. Four examples published during the past eighteen months are: Welby, D., Price, J., Pye S., and Paul Ekins “Unextractable fossil fuel in a world.” Nature 597, 230-234 (2021): https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03821-8.pdf?origin=ppub ; a Canadian study by A. Carter and T. Dordi (Cascade Institute, University of Waterloo) https://cascadeinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Carter-Dordi-Canadas-one-eye-shut-climate-policy-1.1-April-16.pdf. On December 14, 2021, an article by four of Canada’s leading experts on climate policy and oil production pointed out that the CER’s new “Current Policies” forecast for Canadian fossil fuel production (now enshrined in Canada’s ERP) is roughly aligned with the IEA’s recently published “Stated Policies Scenario” which, as the authors explain, “anticipates 2.6°C of warming, far beyond the Paris target”: https://www.nationalobserver.com/2021/12/14/opinion/canadas-energy-regulator-turns-blind-eye-dangerous-global-warming ; May 17, 2022, “Existing fossil fuel extraction would warm the world beyond 1.5°C”, Kelly Trout et al Environ. Res. Lett. 17: https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ac6228/pdf.