How Will Canada Hit the 1.5C Climate Target?

Donner and Zickfeld - Canada's carbon budget

It’s almost half a year since Justin Trudeau’s Liberals swept into power promising a “bold plan to fight climate change”.

At the Paris climate talks in December, Canada indeed seemed to be “back” - as the new PM declared to the world. After the dark age of Stephen Harper’s climate denialism, here he was with his Minister for Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, pushing for a global Agreement that not only aims to keep global average temperature increases to "well below" 2 °C above pre-industrial levels but "to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels”. Amazing.

Canada's carbon budget

So how likely is Canada to stay within this 1.5 °C limit that we’ve signed on for?

On Thursday, three Vancouver-based climate experts (two of them familiar, if you've seen the film) tried to answer this question in a free public discussion (part of SFU’s excellent Planet Under Pressure series of talks): Dr Simon Donner, from UBC, traced the origins of the 1.5 °C target; SFU climate scientist Kirsten Zickfeld gave us an overview of Canada’s rapidly depleting carbon budget; and environmental economist and climate policy expert, SFU's Mark Jaccard urged us to think less about targets and more about policies that work.

So can Canada achieve its part to limit warming to 1.5 °C?

The short answer is, it's highly unlikely.

The long answer involves a lot of numbers, speculation on Canada’s level of climate ambition, and how we decide to divide the remainder of the global carbon budget.

Zickfeld and Donner have already published a paper going into detail on the numbers. The chart above is from that paper. They worked out the global carbon budget (i.e. the amount of carbon we can emit before the world hits the 1.5 °C or 2 °C limits) and have extrapolated Canada’s share of that carbon pie from that.

The paper used two methods for calculating Canada’s share:

  • An emissions based budget where Canada gets a fraction of the whole based on current CO2 emissions
  • An equity approach, based on population

As a developed nation, with one of the highest per capita carbon footprints in the world, Canada would get a much bigger part of the pie based on the first, emissions based scenario than the second.

However, the fairest way to distribute the remaining carbon wealth would, arguably, be a per capita approach.

Even using the more generous emissions based carbon accounting, Canada would still need to drop its emissions to close to zero by 2030 to have a 66% chance of staying under 1.5 °C the authors conclude.

Canada’s annual emissions in 2013 was 0.7 Gigatonnes (Gt).

For a 66% chance of staying within 1.5 °C under the equity based approach, Canada would have a total budget, for all years, of 0.7 Gt.

“We are basically at 1.5 °C,” said Zickfeld.

Buying time

The authors suggest that Canada might be able to expand its carbon budget with changes in land use, yet-to-be-discovered negative emissions technology, and international deals where we buy carbon credits off other less polluting countries. Donner lays out some of the swings and roundabouts in a recent Policy Options article.

For example, Burkina Faso currently has 158 years in its carbon budget under an equity based approach.

Maybe it could sell us some of its carbon "surplus"?

But it really doesn't look good for 1.5 °C. At a global scale, Zickfeld said with current rates of emissions the world will use up its carbon budget in six years.

Canada is still a laggard on climate action. Jaccard pointed out that, with Canada’s emissions increasing rather than decreasing, Canada is going to miss even Stephen Harper’s soft targets for 2030.

“I’m very suspicious of targets,” he said. “Targets are part of the ‘faking it’ approach”, he said pointing out that the Liberal government under Chretien promised much and did little.

So why did the world just agree to what is - by all accounts - an extremely difficult limit on emissions?

Donner explains the rationale for Canada’s apparently “hypocritical” position in Policy Options:

“The 1.5°C warming limit is not in the agreement because negotiators felt it was realistic; the limit is there to officially recognize that many small island developing states face serious harm at greater levels of warming and may require substantial international assistance. Without the 1.5°C language, there is no global deal,” writes Donner.

What works

It was left mostly up to Jaccard as the policy analyst among the three to recommend solutions for de-carbonising the economy. He’s written and spoken about this at length, stressing again and again the importance of compulsory measures rather than measures that encourage people to voluntarily reduce their carbon footprint.

Writes Jaccard: “The only policies that reduce emissions are: (1) a rising carbon tax, or (2) a declining hard emissions cap (probably with tradable permits), or (3) increasingly stringent regulations on emission-causing technologies and fuels, or (4) some combination of these three types of “compulsory policies.” This is all that is needed. Everything else is fluff, including government spending programs.”

Last month, Trudeau failed to get provincial leaders to agree on a national carbon tax. Jaccard said he wasn’t surprised and didn’t mind that leaders included vague sounding “carbon pricing mechanisms” in the Vancouver Declaration.

Jaccard said right at the start of his segment that developing the landmark BC carbon tax was one of the "most exciting" things he'd done in his life. However, he was not surprised that provincial leaders baulked at the idea of ushering in a carbon tax, even a revenue neutral one such as BC's, given that it would need to start at $30 next year and be $160 by 2030 just to hit Stephen Harper’s soft climate targets.

We can still price carbon. “I’m not coming here to say that we can do this by stealth… but I’m sort of saying that,” said Jaccard, proceeding to show how regulations or “implicit carbon pricing” had already achieved huge emissions reductions in Canada.

For example, Ontario phasing out its coal power stations equates to around $100 carbon tax.

BC’s “clean electricity” regulation in 2007 meant two coal plants and a gas plant weren’t built. Few people know it, said Jaccard, but that clean energy regulation was much more effective than the carbon tax in limiting emissions. Although, as Running On Climate shows, Premier Christy Clark has since backtracked on that regulation to accommodate her hoped-for liquid natural gas (LNG) industry.

Jaccard makes a very persuasive case, although in his bid to emphasize compulsory policies over voluntary policies I think he’s in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

He bashes the One-Tonne Challenge ad campaign of the Chretien Liberals, where comedian Rick Mercer encouraged people to voluntarily reduce their carbon footprints.

Maybe that didn’t have much measurable impact, but if we are going to deal with a problem of the magnitude of the climate crisis, we need everybody on board and that requires widespread education and a cultural shift in the way we see and do things.

We can’t leave it all up to policy wonks and climate scientists to decide what’s right for us, or for that matter technology to miraculously deliver solutions. We should be coming at this problem from every direction, including widespread public engagement.

If there was more acute public awareness about the climate implications of people's actions it would ease the way for stronger policy solutions. Right now, many people don't put much thought into whether something is bad or not for the planet. Some well thought-out climate campaigns could go a long way.

Rick Mercer was doing his television spots over ten years ago. The world is a very different place now. Mercer is now doing spots advocating for building oil pipelines!

For what it's worth, I still have my One-Tonne Challenge thermometre magnet on my fridge. Like Mercer's spots, it needs replacing.