Canada’s greenhouse gas story: better than advertised

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Appeared in the National Post

A new report from the government of Canada, on Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 to 2013, is making news. And as usual, the bad news leads.

The media focus is on the probability that Canada will miss its Copenhagen emission-reduction targets from 2009. (Canada agreed to cut emissions by 17 per cent from a 2005 base-year by 2020). In reality, however, this is less about Canada being an environmental laggard, and more a problem with agreeing to politically derived targets you have no idea how to hit. But, fair enough, a miss is a miss—whether you think we should have accepted that target or not.

So that’s the bad news. Now let’s look at the good news. Emissions are indeed up 18 per cent since 1990. But real GDP went up by 71 per cent, meaning there was a 31 per cent decrease in the amount of emissions per unit of economic production over that same time period. That’s actually a great trend in emissions intensity. And before people pooh-pooh emissions intensity, remember that China and India were lauded not that long ago for agreeing to eventually improve their emissions intensity back in 2009.

Per-capita emissions in Canada also dropped by more than 14 per cent (from a 2000 peak) by 2009, and has stayed at a record-low level ever since. That’s a success story, not a failure.

The same story has played out in Canada’s transport sector, which is responsible for about as much greenhouse gas emissions as are the oil and gas sector. Emissions there showed a significant increase (up by about 31 per cent) since 1990. But even there, the glass is half full. While vehicle kilometres travelled rose by 12.5 per cent, emissions only went up by 3.7 per cent since 2005. The report discusses similar (though less pronounced) trends for heavy-duty truck transport, doing more with less: “Emissions from heavy-duty diesel vehicles (large freight trucks) rose by 22.7 Mt (112%) between 1990 and 2013. Growth in emissions reflected a 137% increase in tonne-kilometres shipped by trucks between 1990 and 2003.” Tonne-kilometres shipped by trucks fluctuated from 2004-2011, but there was no net trend in that time frame.

So, you can read the new Environment Canada Report as a glass half empty, or you can read it as a glass half full. What you can’t read it as, and what environmentalists will no doubt insist it shows, is that Canada is some kind of international laggard that has grossly shirked its responsibilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada’s emissions intensity will continue to improve, and eventually emissions will peak and then decline simply due to the evolution of new technologies. It’s happened in the U.S., and it’s a matter of time before it happens here.

Emission rates may not peak and drop as fast as some politicians and environmentalists demand, but then, letting markets do what they do best— drive efficiency through competition—is never fast enough for those who don’t trust markets in the first place.

Canada’s small share of global emissions isn’t completely irrelevant, nor is Canada’s reputation as a global thought leader. But Canada’s emissions are sufficiently small that there’s no reason to insist on radical reduction at high cost, rather than letting technological growth drive emissions down over a slightly longer time at much lower cost.

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