Canadian politicians and activists are moving to cripple Canada’s energy prosperity upon a false belief that the world is uniformly reducing the market for fossil fuels. To them, an energy transition is just around the corner, the result of “climate targets” on the supply of fossil fuels. For example, Green Party leader Elizabeth May said in a recent Globe and Mail opinion piece that, “[i]t would be very obvious that [to meet climate targets] we cannot approve any new fossil fuel projects – anywhere in Canada.” SFU professor Mark Jaccard argued previously in the Globe and Mail that prohibiting new pipelines and oil sands expansion is “essential to achieve national and global climate goals.” The Liberal government has accepted this advice in the past and will be pressed to do so again in the future.
But do “global” and “national” climate goals require Canada to abruptly cap its extraction of fossil fuels? Certainly not. These activists provide a simplistic analysis that leads them to create goals of their own not at all in accord with international realities and obligations. By creating national goals that disconnect Canada from world energy needs, they create artificial goals, falsely claiming that they are saving the planet. They fail in their attempt to nationalize an international problem.
Let us examine this more closely. What are the proper global climate goals to which Canada must respond? As befitting an almost insoluble collective action problem, and what has also been described as a super wicked problem, there are no international reduction standards for individual nations under the Paris Agreement of 2015 and only the vaguest of aspirations. Paris simply calls for global peaking of emissions as “soon as possible” to keep global average temperature “well below 2% C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5% C.” The agreement then leaves it up to individual countries to support that objective with voluntary, self-created “domestic mitigation measures.”
From that foundation different nations have gone their own way meeting their own national interests. Developing countries are pursuing their prosperity through fossil fuels – as they are entitled to do under Paris. The largest emitting nations are failing to prescribe for themselves any domestic mitigation measures. Demand continues unabated and world markets continue to flourish.
International agreements reflect reality. The Paris Agreement was constructed on the reality that an abrupt transition is not remotely workable and that many of the world’s nations desire to pursue their prosperity. 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 it is a grand delusion to think that decarbonization can be achieved in just a few decades. Bjorn Lomborg, quoting the International Energy Agency, has reported that even if every promised national reduction target in the Paris Agreement is achieved by 2040, fossil fuels will still deliver 74% of total energy.
In a world where fossil fuels continue to flow across borders, where does that leave Canadian national mitigation goals? First, as to fossil fuel exports (and it certainly seems many of the new projects will extract oil for export), international demands for fossil fuels will be supplied either by Canada or by some other producing nation. Responsibility for the emissions of combustion lies with the consuming nation, leaving Canada without any say in their affairs whatsoever.
Second, domestic demand in Canada will continue until something else is invented, developed, and commercialized at sufficient scale to replace it. Until that happens, we might as well supply ourselves. Emissions for combustion will be the same whether we supply it or someone else does. If the private sector is willing to bear the “losses” following upon any energy transition, whether domestically or internationally, they should be allowed to do so.
But what of the so-called “upstream emissions” – emissions combusted in the extraction, refining and transportation processes – for new projects that some activists insist are a reality? According to the report of Professor Jaccard and a colleague, upstream emissions would amount to 8.8 MT CO2e per year for the establishment of the Trans Mountain Pipeline project alone, the equivalent, they say, of adding 2.2 million average emission cars to Canada’s existing vehicle stock. But these do not represent increased global emissions, for they will exist at any rate if Canada does not produce them. As a function of “national goals,” upstream emissions are just simply a case of double-counting, again of no moment to saving the planet.
There is thus no proof that halting Canada’s fossil fuel projects will reduce global emissions. Canadian national goals cannot easily be crafted to meet global aspirations and need to be re-thought. In the meantime, it is best to recognize the failure in the focus on the national to the exclusion of the international.