Canada’s ongoing expansion of oil and natural gas production for another 25 years is incompatible with Canada’s newly promised “net-zero by 2050” goal
The aim of this site is to encourage individuals and small groups of constituents working collaboratively to approach our Members of Parliament (in each case initiated and directed by the individuals who live in each constituency) to directly engage our MPs on TMX and Canada’s oil sands expansion and to make the case that Canada’s existing plans to continue the expansion of oil sands production to 2045 (and building additional TMX pipeline capacity to facilitate that expansion) are inconsistent with achieving the deep emissions reductions we need by 2030.
We face an unforgiving timeline. In British Columbia, late June and the entire month of July brought extreme temperatures, drought, forest fires, and unprecedented warming of the province’s rivers and of tidal waters along the West Coast causing terrible losses to marine life. We are seeing a repeat of the massive wildfire losses in BC in the summers of 2017 and 2018, replicated now in fires to the south across Oregon and California, and in Australia, Siberia, Greece, and now in Turkey and Italy. In the past month horrific extreme rain and flooding events have swept through Europe and China. None of this has come without warning.
The approach: the duty of our Members of Parliament
Our approach is to go to our Members of Parliament with well prepared, specific questions and to find out exactly what their positions are on crucial issues that will determine whether Canada can act effectively to avoid the worst climate outcomes.
It is a profound mistake to believe that because the assessment of carbon dioxide emissions and their impacts on the climate system are based on complex science that we, as non-experts, cannot make informed judgments about what is to be done and what is safe policy. It is useful and sobering to keep in mind that, whatever happens, it will not be the experts who make the decisions. It will be the elected politicians. Our approach is that we should have access to the same information they have, so we can test the soundness of the decisions they are making.
At this grave moment, the duty of our elected political leaders is to speak to us, their constituents, with absolute candour. We will choose whom to trust. But candour means they must speak not just honestly when they communicate with us, but that they hold back nothing that is relevant and material on this terrible subject which is so politically difficult, so often divisive, and which offers no easy solutions. When our Members of Parliament speak, they must bear in mind that they are speaking for the unborn, for all the children who will follow, and for all those who cannot protect themselves because they have no power. On this grave subject, elected politicians are in the position of trustees. They must be guided by conscience, and put aside all games of artful silence, and dispense with their stratagems of not answering questions and all the shabby communications strategies that over the past 30 years have successfully deceived a generation of Canadians.
Why the government’s recent steps call for a strong engagement with elected MPs
There are at least six key reasons why the recent announcements and publications by the Federal Government require a quick and strong intervention by all of us at the constituency level. Each of these points raises opportunities for specific questions or challenges to our MPs.
1. Canada’s oil sands production expansion is projected to continue for 25 more years
On November 19, 2020, the Government of Canada announced a new goal of achieving “net-zero emissions by 2050”. The declaration was presented at a press conference as the launch of an ambitious new climate policy. Everybody applauded.
Yet, less than a week later, on November 24, 2020, the government’s energy agency quietly released its annual report, titled Canada’s Energy Future 2020 (the “CER 2020 Report”).1 This is an annual report which in past years has provided updated projections showing the expected growth of Canada’s oil and gas production to 2030 and 2040. The new report provides production data to 2050. The “Reference Case” shows that Canada’s total oil production will continue to increase until 2045, when it will “peak” at 7.1 million barrels per day (bpd), more than 2.2 million bpd above the 2019 level.
We are the world 4th largest oil producer, and the 3rd largest oil exporter of crude oil. Canada’s plan is to continue expanding oil production for another 25 years.
2. Global consumption of crude oil must be cut 50% by within the next 20 years
Oil use accounts for 33% of all global CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels. Natural gas use accounts for 21% of the world’s annual emissions (a 39% share of global CO2 emissions from burning coal makes up most of the balance). Since at least 2013, Canadian governments have been repeatedly warned that to stay within the threshold of dangerous atmospheric heating, it is essential that oil production must start to decline on a global scale by 2020.
The IPCC’s Special Report on Global Warming to 1.5°C published in October 2018 explained that a 50% reduction of overall global emissions must be achieved by 2030 to meet that goal. The staggering task of achieving a 50% cut of total CO2 emissions by 2030 below the 2019 level cannot be done without a substantial decline of oil production on a worldwide scale.
Most recently, on May 18, 2021, the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) new “Net-Zero by 2050 Scenario” concluded that global oil production must be reduced 50% by 2040 and 75% by 2050 to keep the increase in the earth’s average surface temperature to within the 1.5°C warming limit.
Canada’s plans to increase our oil production for another 25 years are incompatible with the scientific evidence. But our politicians are silent on that fundamental point.
The government’s own energy agency, in its CER 2020 report released on November 24, 2020, included an alternative scenario (which it called the “Evolving Scenario”) showing a slightly slower pace of expansion and an earlier production “peak”. Under the Evolving Scenario, Canada’s oil production keeps growing every year to 2039, when it peaks at 5.8 million bpd – still almost 1 million bpd above the 2019 level. The CER 2020 report explains that the Evolving Scenario is an example of how lower productions levels could occur if global oil demand grows more slowly over the next 20 years (reflecting the impact of more stringent policies around the world to limit carbon emissions). But Canada’s energy agency does not offer any opinion, one way or the other, about whether the current rate of growth of oil production in Canada to 2045 will eventually slow down to something like the Evolving Scenario.
The CER 2020 report does however acknowledge that even the slower rate of growth in future oil sands production shown in the “Evolving Scenario” will not be sufficient to meet Canada’s recently announced “net-zero by 2050” goal:
It is also clear that Canada’s more ambitious goals, such as achieving net-zero by 2050, will require faster transition than we have witnessed historically and faster than is shown in the Evolving Scenario. Recognizing this fact, we have introduced a “Towards Net-zero” section in EF2020.— CER 2020 Report, November 24, 2020, page 62 (emphasis added)
That is a surprising admission that Canada’s planned trajectory of oil sands expansion is inconsistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C.
But on that crucial point, the government and in particular the Minister of Environment and Climate Change have remained silent for over eight months since the CER report was released on November 24. They have offered no comment on how Canada’s current plans to continue oil sands expansion can be reconciled with the “net-zero by 2050” goal.
3. Canada’s new “net zero by 2050” target: a meaningless promise
Despite the declaration at the November 19, 2020 press conference, Canada’s new “net-zero by 2050” emission goal does not in fact provide us with an emissions reduction target.
When the CER 2020 report was published just five days later (on November 24, 2020), it informed us that “reaching net-zero emissions does not necessarily require eliminating all emissions” by 2050. It promises only that by 2050 the ongoing level of Canada’s annual emissions (referred to as our “remaining emissions”) will be offset (“balanced”) by future technologies that it claims will have the capability to remove massive amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere (“emissions removals”).
The government promised that it would enact legislation that would give the new “net-zero emissions by 2050” target the force of law. When Bill C-12 was passed by Parliament on June 29, 2012, section 6 of the new law makes this impressive-sounding declaration: “The national greenhouse gas emissions target for 2050 is net-zero emissions”.
But the definition section of the legislation tells us only this about what “net-zero emissions” really means:
Net-zero emissions means that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere are balanced by anthropogenic removals of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere over a specified period.
This definition provides us with two “unknowns”. It refers to (1) our “remaining emissions” in 2050 (which are described as the amount Canada’s “greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere” in that year), but no amount or measurement is given; and it provides an unquantified reference to (2) “anthropogenic removals of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere”. The definition tells us only that these two undefined numbers will be “balanced”.
The new law passed on June 29 tells us nothing about how these envisioned future emissions removals might be achieved, or what kinds of technologies might be relied on to do that.
The concept assumes, or promises, that future massive installations of CCUS technology (Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage) and other future technologies will allow us to declare, by 2050, that we have ceased “any net additions” to the cumulative amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Meeting that promise, of course, is left to the world’s children and they will bear the economic burden of that.
CCUS, which has already been adopted at a limited number of sites around the world including two installations in Alberta, has the capability to capture and separate CO2 from the flue gases at large industrial facilities (but it is not a “direct air removal” technology and therefor its application is limited to industrial sources at fixed sites). It has not yet proven to be economically viable for large-scale deployment. Other proposed future technologies, referred to generically as CDR technologies (Carbon Dioxide Removal) or “engineered negative emissions solutions” envision methods that will allow CO2 to be directly removed from the atmosphere (“direct air removal”) and hybrid schemes such as BECCS (bioenergy combined with CCUS). These technologies either do not exist or exist at a very small-scale experimental stage.
The government’s new promise about “net-zero by 2050” is nothing more than an unsubstantiated and unverifiable claim that by 2050 “remaining emissions” will be equal to “emissions removals.”
Unless we know how high the level of “remaining emissions” are going to be in 2050, we have no way of knowing whether this plan has any air of reality. If we knew Canada’s annual emissions are still going to be, for example, around 200 Mt or 300 Mt a year by 2050 (the actual level was 730 Mt in 2019) we would know that this plan is reckless and dangerous because we have no assurance that, thirty years from now, CDR will prove effective and viable on the scale required to remove that amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. The government’s scheme relies on a conjecture about the availability and feasibility of these envisioned future technologies (the background document at Note 9 on page 50 discusses the possible future role of CDR).
This plan, as it stands, gives the government a free licence to continue the currently planned expansion of Canada’s oil sands production, and other carbon-intensive industries (including LNG in B.C.) for another twenty-five years. Oil and gas sector emissions are the dominant source of our county’s emissions growth. The higher they go (and the longer we delay reversing this trend) the higher our “remaining emissions” will be in 2050 – and the higher the annual level of “emissions removals” would have to be after 2050 to meet “net-zero”. Under this scheme, all the risk and the loss and suffering will be shifted to the world’s children, in exchange for our own immediate financial gain.
4. The new plan does not offer a credible emissions reduction plan for Canada by 2030
Crucial questions remain unanswered about Canada’s planned actions over the next nine years.
A generation ago the Liberal government of John Chretien made an ambitious commitment under the Kyoto Protocol (signed in 1997 and ratified by Parliament in 2002) to reduce Canada’s total emissions 6% below the 1990 level by 2012. That required a cut down to an annual total of about 580 Mt by 2012. By 2005, Canada’s emissions reached 738 Mt. Kyoto was beyond reach. In December 2009, a new Conservative government made a new commitment, promising a 17% reduction below the 2005 level by 2020, down to 613 Mt. Our annual emissions reached 730 Mt in 2019. Each time we get near a failed target our government announces a new target a decade or two in the future.
A core finding of the October 2018 IPCC report was that all releases of CO2 into the atmosphere must reach “net-zero” by 2050 to give us a 66% of reaching the 1.5°C goal. A second core finding was that to achieve the objective of net-zero emissions by 2050, the annual level of global emissions must by 2030 be reduced 50% below the 2018 level (the actual wording was 45% below the 2010 level). The Special Report was clear that to successfully reach the ultimate goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, it is essential that we achieve an unprecedented 50% cut by 2030. The only qualification to that stark warning is that if we fail to meet the 2030 target, or choose not to do so, our last resort will be to attempt, later, to remove the “residual emissions” from the atmosphere.
That is the situation we are facing. We have nine years. Canada is the world’s 10th largest emitter. We are one of a small group of countries with the wealth and advanced technological capacity to be able to achieve a 50% reduction in our national emissions by 2030. Our government endorsed the findings of the IPCC Report when it was released in October 2018.
Instead of acting, for the past six years the current Liberal government has maintained that our national goal was a 30% reduction by 2030 below the 2005 level, down to 513 Mt (which was our commitment under the Paris Agreement in December 2015.2
As recently as December 11, 2020,3 the government published new emissions projections assuring us that, taking into account the promised benefits of all of its new policy “initiatives” (many of them not yet implemented), Canada’s total emissions will decline to 503 Mt by 2030. That outcome if achieved would amount to a 32% reduction. But the December claim assumes, among other things, that emissions in Canada’s oil and gas sector emissions (our largest emitting sector) can be dramatically reduced by 2030, from a currently expected annual level of 194 Mt in 2030 down to 138 Mt. The government has not yet disclosed any plans or details to explain how an unprecedented 56 Mt cut can be achieved in the emissions-intensive oil and gas sector if overall oil and gas output continues to grow.
Now, belatedly, the government has promised a more ambitious goal. On April 22, 2021, the Liberal Government announced at another press conference that Canada by 2030 will reduce its emissions 40% to 45% below the 2005 level.
But the government has not revealed to Canadians any plan or analysis to explain how these massive additional cuts might be achieved. It merely announced a new number. A 45% reduction will mean that Canada’s total emissions must decline to 401 Mt by 2030.
The annual level was 730 Mt in 2019. Even the most rudimentary plan would provide Canadians with some basic details of how an extraordinary 328 Mt absolute reduction can be achieved within the next nine years. During the entire 14 years between 2005 to 2019, Canada’s total emissions declined 9 Mt in total. How do we get from 730 Mt in 2019 down to 401 Mt by 2030? There is no plan, or if there is a plan, we are not being told what it is.
5. TMX pipeline expansion not required
The Canada’s Energy Future 2020 report published on November 24 conceded that if Canada’s oil production is even modestly reduced over the coming decades in line with the Evolving Scenario, the proposed new pipeline capacity provided by both the Keystone XL and by the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project (TMX) would not be required (see the graph on page 44 of the CER 2020 report, reproduced as Figure D in Part VI of the background document on page 14).
In other words, if the world acts to even slightly curb global oil use to reduce the emissions that are driving global heating, there will be no economic rationale to proceed with the Trans Mountain expansion. According to the government energy agency’s analysis, under the Reference Scenario all the currently planned new pipeline capacity will be needed. But under the Evolving Scenario, depicted by the lower red dotted line and which more gently curves up to about 5 million bpd of available supply in 2035-2040, the TMX pipeline is not required.
6. Democratic values and climate change: no transparency or accountability
Constituents in every riding across Canada have a legitimate interest and right to be able to assess the viability of this “net-zero by 2050” plan. In a democracy, we have a duty and moral obligation as individuals to inform ourselves of the meaning of this plan for our children and for all children in the world who, by 2050 and for decades after that, are going to be burdened with removing perhaps 200 or 300 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 every year from the atmosphere using envisioned future emissions reduction technologies that do not yet exist.
It is essential that Canadian citizens have a fully informed understanding now of the annual level of “remaining emissions” by 2050 that the Government claims will be safe and acceptable. And we must also have a realistic understanding of the technological capacity that will be available to our children by 2050 to achieve any large-scale “emissions removals” required. That is what “accountability” and “transparency” mean.
Information about the expected annual level of Canada’s “remaining emissions” in 2050 is essential and it is urgently required. If our Members of Parliament do not know what the answers are, they are obligated to tell us they do not know.
1. Canada’s Energy Future 2020: Energy Supply and Demand Projections, Canada Energy Regulator, November 24, 2020
2. The pledge to reduce Canada’s emissions 30% by 2050 below the 2005 level was originally made by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper on May 15, 2015, and was re-affirmed by the Liberal government at the Paris Conference in December 2015.
3. Canada’s new emissions projection to 2030 are found in Tables 1 and 3 of “Modelling and Analysis of a Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy,” published as an Appendix to the 79-page document A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy released on December 11, 2020, by Environment and Climate Change Canada.