Finally, leadership from the US

Published Tuesday, June 10, 2014 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

On June 2, US President Barack Obama launched a major new greenhouse gas reduction plan with the potential to snowball into greater action around the world.  Here’s a quick look at what’s coming and how Canada compares.

The US plan

By most accounts, President Obama’s Clean Power Plan is a worthy initiative.  It has a well defined goal: by 2030, emissions from the power generation sector – source of about one third of the US’s emissions – must be 30% below what they were in 2005.  

The plan covers all power plants fuelled by coal, oil and natural gas – a total of 1,000 facilities across the US.  However, the prime targets are clearly coal-fired plants, which produce twice the emissions per kilowatt hour generated as natural gas power plants.   

It’s expected that the Clean Power Plan will have significant benefits beyond reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  

First, it will drive investment in renewable energy sources, particularly wind and solar.

Second, it will drive investment in greater energy efficiency, from buildings to appliances.

Third, it will provide significant public health benefits by concurrently reducing emissions that cause smog and respiratory illnesses.

Good news, bad news

The Clean Power Plan will put the US within range of achieving its official greenhouse gas reduction target of 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.  That’s good news – the proverbial glass-half-full.

It will also give President Obama some much-needed moral high ground when it comes to global emission reduction talks, and may nudge other major emitters to act.  A day after the US announcement, a Chinese official hinted that China plans to set an absolute cap on its emissions from 2016 onwards – welcome words from the world’s largest emitting nation.   

But here’s the glass-half-empty side: by most measures, the US’s 2020 target is not ambitious enough, and China’s plans aren’t either.  In comparison, the European Union has a far more aggressive 2020 target: reducing emissions by 20 per cent compared to 1990 levels.  That 1990 baseline is important: it’s a lower number to start with, so 1990-based targets are much harder to hit.  (If the US were to use its 1990 emissions of 6.2 billion tonnes as a baseline, then its 2020 target of 6.0 billion tonnes would represent a reduction of only about 3%.)

In its recent landmark report, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that 2050 global emissions must be 40-70 per cent less than they were in 2010 if we are to limit climate change to two degrees Celsius.  (Sadly, limiting warming to less than two degrees already seems beyond reach.)

Canada, the outlier

In Ottawa, the official reaction to the US announcement was to boast that regulations were enacted on coal-fired power plants here two years ago – conveniently ignoring that fact that existing plants are exempt, and that coal is a much smaller slice of our emissions pie in the first place.

Canada’s official emissions reduction goal parallels that of the US: 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.  (When recalculated using 1990 as a baseline, our target is actually an increase of 3.5%.)  But numbers released by Environment Canada earlier this year indicate that, unlike the US, Canada has virtually no hope of achieving this very modest goal.  

It’s no mystery why: thanks to continued frantic development of the oil sands, the oil and gas sector became Canada’s largest emitter in 2012.  Long-promised emissions regulations for that sector have yet to materialize. 

A great start, and…

The US’s Clean Power Plan is a commendable undertaking: a strong step taken under extremely difficult political conditions.  Hopefully it will start a snowball of more aggressive actions rolling across the US and worldwide.  And hopefully that snowball will roll into Canada.