Can Canada Really Become Carbon Neutral?
Remember the 1988 World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere, which took place in Toronto? At this ground-breaking confab, more than 300 scientists and policymakers representing 46 countries announced that the world needs to lower carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent by 2005.
Since those heady days, Canada’s emissions have risen from about 600 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent in 1990 to 730 megs recently. Indeed, per capita CO2 emissions in Canada are by far the highest among the G7 countries. Emissions per Canuck are about 19%. Other industrial countries with high per capita emission levels include the US and Australia – both at 14%.
Why are we Canadians such energy hogs? Because our country is rich, big and cold. Also, we share two borders with the United States.
Rich: This concerns us all. Indeed, three quarters of Canadians worry that they will be personally affected by a gasoline shortage in the next five years, but their actions do not seem to match their anguish. Last year, for example, 43 per cent of Canadians reported increasing their consumption of gasoline during the previous three years, compared to 21 per cent who reported lowering it.
Yet during that three-year period, prices nearly doubled. This partly reflects the economic good times of recent years. Many Canadians have seen their personal wealth (think house prices) grow greatly. For many, this has made gasoline price increases – a small part of most household budgets – seem less significant than they would in a recession, say. The relative insignificance of fuel pricing today is one of the main reasons we are less likely to change our driving habits than we did during the last great run-up in gasoline prices - between 1975 and 1980. We have become addicted to gasoline, and that addiction is growing. And the Canada Energy Regulator sees no decline in our oil consumption in the foreseeable future.
If asked who should pay the climate change bill, I suspect that most Canadians would say “someone else.” While surveys many Canadians express concern about global warming, there is a large gap between thought and action. After all, the highest-selling vehicles in Canada are pickup trucks and SUVs, and Canada’s snowbirds have a long tradition of flying south for winter holidays. That and the realities that we also mine, use and export coal for energy, help explain why we’ve had 25 years of unachieved carbon emission goals.
Another is Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, which represents half of our land mass. Among these, the Hudson Bay Lowlands of northern Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec comprise one of the largest such continuous regions. These numbers are relevant to global climate-change scenarios and Canada’s role in them because organic matter trapped in permafrost represents half of the global carbon pool below ground. As the permafrost inn these regions thaw, releasing greenhouse gases, they create feedback loops that are turbocharging this country’s climate change experience.
Big and cold: Canadians use a lot of energy because we live in a country much bigger than Europe, with a much colder climate. We need a lot of natural gas and petroleum products to heat homes and commercial buildings, and to power our economy and to drive long distances. Also, of course, most of us would rather drive than stand at the bus stop in a blizzard, so in winter we often avoid the bitter cold by using our vehicles rather than public transit.
Our driving habits, regulations and conditions are fuel-inefficient in many ways. Many of us drive SUVs and campers to visit parks and wilderness areas. Indeed, for years now consumers on both sides of the border have been buying more trucks than cars. And we drive fast. Speed limits in most provinces range up to 110 km per hour. To put that in context, only five EU countries permit drivers to reach 100 km per hour, compared to 70 to 90 kms per hour in the other 25 countries.
Our vehicles are more fuel-efficient than in the past, but suburban sprawl has created greater distances between home and the places where we work, shop and play. Walking and cycling to work are less likely to be serious options than in the past. Suburbs often don’t have easy access to public transit, and the situation is even worse in rural areas. So, we drive. Nation-wide, only one Canadian in four walks, cycles or takes public transit to work or school. Those of driveable age drive.
America’s neighbour: Most Canadians believe we have created a more civil society than Americans have. Illogically, from that starting point we believe we also do better in the matter of energy consumption and management. Unfortunately, that isn’t so.
Among the advanced industrial nations of the world, Canada has the greatest per capita appetite for petroleum-based energy – the forms most responsible for global warming.
The countries of North America are two stories with a common theme. We want economic growth; energy consumption be damned. Like the Americans, we have a wizening aversion to high energy taxes. Today, on average, Canadians spend US$1.21 for a litre of gasoline, compared to the average price in America of US$0.98.
Successive North American governments have refused to impose high taxes on fuel in the way most other OECD countries did. Compare the growth rate for hydrocarbon consumption in Canada to that in America. Population growth was slightly higher in Canada than in the US.
Neither did Canada, arguing that increasing energy costs would put the country's industries (many of them energy-intensive, resource-extraction operations) at a disadvantage compared to those in the US. The result? The volumes of non-renewable energy we consume haven’t flattened. They continue to grow despite the development of energy-efficient technologies, processes, and procedures.
And that takes us back to our southern neighbour again. To reduce greenhouse gas emissions in America, the Biden administration has proposed nearly US$50 billion in tax breaks, incentives for government agencies to buy electric vehicles, loans for retooling factories and aid to automotive plant communities. Further billions – for example, a 30 per cent tax credit for commercial electric vehicles and up to US$12,500 in tax credits to consumers who buy an electric vehicle assembled in the United States by union workers so far appears to lack the votes to pass the closely divided U.S. Senate.
Thus, through politics, the drift between the two countries accelerates.