The Paris Agreement does not contemplate “national goals” of blocking oil and gas projects

[Note to readers: this is a considerably revised version of my previous post. It reminds us that cancelling projects such as the Teck $20 B Frontier Project, which has just been “withdrawn,” will result in no savings in global GHG emissions. Canada suffers without saving the planet.]

Politicians and activists, with an obsessive focus upon oil and gas extraction, are moving to cripple Canada’s prosperity by forbidding new projects, in order, they say, to meet “climate goals.” But they claim not, indeed, to be harming Canada, for, according to their calculations, an energy transition is just around the corner, the result of the world uniformly reducing and eliminating the supply of fossil fuels. One proponent, SFU professor Mark Jaccard, said in the Globe and Mail that prohibiting new pipelines and oil sands expansion is “essential to achiev[ing] national and global climate goals.”

But do “global climate goals” really require Canada to abruptly cap its extraction of fossil fuels? Definitely not. Concentrating on supply, proponents of the cap on new projects undertake a simplistic analysis that lead them to create goals of their own making, out of sync with actual market demand for what is a mobile commodity, and out of sync with international obligations. By calling the cap a “national climate goal,” they serve to disconnect Canada from world energy needs, creating instead only artificial, local reductions that fail to reduce global emissions.

Let us look at this more closely. What are the proper global climate goals to which Canada must respond? As befitting the almost insoluble collective action problem of global mitigation, the Paris Agreement of 2015 contains no reduction standards for individual nations. The Agreement simply pleads for global peaking of emissions as “soon as possible.” Developed countries, including Canada, are encouraged to set their own “economy-wide absolute emission reduction targets,” but these are to be created outside the Agreement by each nation for itself.

Paris then, is not really a legal framework. It is merely aspirational. From this shaky footing, different nations have followed their own national interests. Developing countries are pursuing prosperity through fossil fuels. The largest emitting nations are failing to prescribe for themselves any domestic reduction measures whatsoever. Producing nations (other than Canada) continue to produce as before.

Paris reflects the reality that an abrupt transition is not doable. Presently, 81% of world primary energy consumption is provided by fossil fuels, the same amount as in 1991. Vaclav Smil, professor emeritus of the University of Manitoba, has concluded that it is a grand delusion to think that decarbonization can be achieved over the short run. Infrastructure changes take decades. Bjorn Lomborg, quoting the International Energy Agency, has reported that even if every promised national reduction target in Paris is achieved by 2040, fossil fuels will still deliver 74% of total energy.

Deep down, activists too, realize that the world is not fast approaching an energy transition. After all, why would they lobby government to block new projects if the only hardship suffered is that of private investors being stuck with the “stranded assets” of the projects upon transition?

In a world therefore where fossil fuels continue to be used, is it possible that Canada will miss emission targets by constructing new projects?

First, as to fossil fuel exports (which will form the lion’s share of use), international demand will be supplied either by Canada or by some other producing nation. Responsibility for combustion falls upon the consuming nation. Canada can therefore claim no credit for lowering world emissions by halting exports. And indeed, many have argued that Canada can help lower global emissions by exporting oil and gas, which have a lower carbon profile than say, wood or coal.

Second, as to domestic combustion of newly extracted fossil fuels, demand will continue until something else is invented, developed, and commercialized at sufficient scale to replace it. Thus, reductions will not be made by strangling new domestic supply.

Therefore, neither exports nor domestic use will increase emissions. But what of “upstream emissions,” that is, the emissions combusted in the extraction, refining, and transportation for new energy projects? For, according to Professor Jaccard, upstream emissions for the Trans Mountain Pipeline project would amount to the equivalent of “adding 2.2 million average emission cars to Canada’s existing vehicle stock.”

But once again, other producing nations will step in to meet demand if Canada doesn’t. So, although it might be argued that Canada has actually added new “national emissions” (but what new aerospace or car factory won’t do that as well?) the one clear intention of Paris – to decrease net global emissions – is not being met. As a “national goal,” protecting against upstream emissions is a false one. It simply leads to a ledger adjustment, a case of double-counting overall, of no moment in saving the planet.

To get real reductions, if mitigation is the key to climate change, Canada will have to do something other than blocking prosperity-building oil and gas projects.

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