Canada can be a world leader in emissions reductions and renewable energy use, but only if its federal government decides to take climate change seriously, according to a new report.
The report, published Wednesday by 70 Canadian academics, looked at Canada’s potential to shift its electricity production to renewable sources and cut its emissions. It found that the country could get 100 percent of its electricity from low-carbon sources like wind, solar, and hydropower by 2035 and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. To achieve these goals, the report recommended that the federal government implement a nationwide price on carbon and eliminate subsidies to Canada’s fossil fuel industry — particularly, its tar sands industry.
Catherine Potvin, lead author of the report and biology professor at McGill University in Montreal, told ThinkProgress that if Canada’s federal government has the will, the country could shift to being powered renewable energy as early as 2025. Already, according to the report, 62 percent of Canada’s electricity is produced from renewable energy — mostly in the form of hydropower. Just 23 percent is produced from fossil fuels.
Many provinces produce a surplus of hydropower, she said, energy which could be sold to other provinces. And prairie provinces like Saskatchewan are ripe with solar potential, while coastal provinces like New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and British Columbia are good candidates for wind energy.
“This report is a very sensible pathway for most of Canada into the world of climate change mitigation,” Potvin said.
But, the report notes, these goals won’t be achieved if the federal government doesn’t have the political will — and right now, it doesn’t appear to. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who assumed office in 2006, has long been criticized for his environmental and climate change policies. Under Harper, Canada withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, a document that the prime minister once referred to as a “socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations.” Harper’s government has also been accused of silencing activists who speak out against the country’s tar sands industry and of “muzzling” scientists and meteorologists, forbidding them to speak publicly about climate change.
Potvin said that representatives from Canada’s federal government didn’t attend a launch event Wednesday for the report, though they were invited and though representatives from Canada’s provinces and cities, including tar sands-heavy Alberta and Calgary, did show up. That lack of interest could impede the goals laid out by the report, said Mark Winfield, an associate professor of environmental studies at York University in Toronto.
“Clearly the current Canadian federal government has absolutely no interest in pursuing these paths — that’s become painfully apparent,” Winfield told ThinkProgress.
That could change, however, after Canada’s federal election on October 19, 2015. Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau promised in February to create a national price on carbon if he’s elected Prime Minister, though he’s received some criticism from environmentalists for his support of the Keystone XL pipeline. New Democratic Party and Official Opposition leader Thomas Mulcair has also laid out his goals for climate policy, including a cap-and-trade program with a price on carbon tax breaks for homeowners who make their houses more energy-efficient.
Potvin said she hopes that the report will serve as an eye-opener for Canadians as to what can be done about climate change in the country, and that it will help them compare federal candidates’ stances on climate change. She also hopes climate change will be a major part of the discussions and debates in the federal election.
Though the report does call for an end for Canada’s fossil fuel subsidies, it doesn’t call for Alberta to decrease its production of the carbon-intensive fuel. Potvin said that this was because the authors decided that they didn’t want to use the report to target a particular province or business sector; rather, they wanted to explore what Canada as a whole could do to combat climate change. She also said that a price on carbon and an end to fossil fuel subsidies would prompt tar sands producers to clean up their operations. She noted that she thinks it’s reasonable for Alberta to continue to extract fossil fuels in some capacity while also committing to reducing its emissions: Norway, after all, is an oil and gas producer, but it has a tax on carbon and regulations on extraction.
Winfield said that, as the report wasn’t focused specifically on the tar sands, this approach made sense, and he said ending fossil fuel subsidies would be a good first step for the Canadian government. Ultimately, however, he said tar sands development will have to decrease if Canada wants to be serious about climate change. Alberta expects its tar sands production to increase from 1.9 million barrels per day in 2012 to 3.8 million barrels per day in 2022. That increase in extraction is going to overshadow the climate mitigation progress made by individual provinces, like British Columbia’s tax on carbon or Ontario’s phase-out of coal plants, Winfield said.
“All that progress will be completely wiped out by the consequences of growth in oil sands, if that continues at the projected pace,” he said.
But a federal price on carbon could change that.
“At some point, the federal government is going to have to get engaged,” Winfield said. “I don’t think there’s any way around that.”