August 2002

Why was Alberta's plan rejected?
by John Bennett

On May 21st the Alberta government’s climate change plan was rejected by the federal government and all the other provinces and territories. Was this a case of the rest of Canada ganging up on Alberta or were there valid reasons for moving forward within the framework of the Kyoto Protocol?

The Alberta plan flatly rejects the Kyoto Protocol as too expensive and technically unreachable. Instead it says Alberta will reduce the province’s emission by 10% below 1990 levels by 2020 while reducing the greenhouse gas intensity of its economy by 50%. In effect giving itself an additional ten years. On the surface this sounds like a reasonable approach to a complex issue. So why would the rest of the country reject it?

Alberta says the Kyoto Protocol’s emissions reduction target and implementation timetable is too expensive and technically unreachable. This premise is utterly false. There have been numerous studies that indicate the technology is available and the cost, if there is a real cost at all, is manageable. The federal government has just provided four separate options for reaching the target -- all of the them affordable.

The federal option number three for example estimates Canada can reach the Kyoto target in 2012 while the economy grows by 30.4% instead of 31% under business as usual conditions. The Alberta economy would grow 26.2% and even the oil and gas sector grows 24.6% So why would Canada need to look for a plan outside of Kyoto? Why would Alberta?

Moreover, the Alberta plan has a number of questionable aspects that led the rest of country to reject it not the least of which is its basic dishonesty. The announced target of minus 10% is for “domestic emissions” meaning the Alberta government intends only to count emissions from activities in the province that are not associated with the export of oil and gas. Those emissions are expected to rise from 42 mega tonnes to 73 mega tonnes by 2020. Alberta’s real emissions target is actually an increase of about 20% not a decrease at all.

In Charlottetown the CBC asked one of Alberta Environment Minister, Lorne Taylor’s assistants if the atmosphere could tell the difference between domestic and export emissions and she replied that she was not qualified to comment.

The Alberta plan is also very speculative. It relies on two very questionable ideas. Reductions from industry will be achieved through voluntary agreements and investing in research and development of “clean coal” and “carbon storage” technology. Basically one might say Alberta expects its industry to voluntarily make the smoke go down instead of up.

Historically, voluntary action by industry is the least successful means of protecting the environment. The record is clear that the better industry is regulated the better it performs both environmentally and economically. In making his announcement Mr. Taylor cited international studies linking economic performance and environmental regulation as supporting his approach. He was actually presenting the findings back to front. He said you need economic growth to have environmental quality. The opposite is true. Countries with the best environmental regulation are the wealthiest and most competitive.

The concept of clean coal is much like the promise of cheap nuclear generated electricity. It is a promise. It is not proven and won't be without huge public investments. Should we spend these huge sums on possibilities when there are sure things all around us?. Energy efficiency, conservation, renewable energy, advanced car designs are all sitting on the shelf waiting for us to create the conditions to commercialize them. Ratifying the protocol will do just that.

Carbon storage does have merit. It is economically feasible in a number of applications today and should be happening. Indeed, under the federal options there will be investment in this area. Again, however the long term concept of burning fossil fuels and pumping the smoke into the ground at power plants and refineries is a long way down the road and our money could be better spent on available technology.

Alberta, in rejecting the Kyoto Protocol, would isolate Canada from the rest of the world which is working toward global action on a global problem. Mr. Taylor even condemned the possible use of international trading and the clean development mechanism as part of Canada reaching its target. He said this would cause an outflow of capital. Will it?

The federal option paper says it will not purchase credits that do not actually reduce present or future emissions. Will the federal government buy credits that are not created through the use of Canadian technology and know how? The international mechanism will actually stimulate Canadian exports. The projects may take place in developing countries, but it will be Canadian technology, built and installed by Canadians. The Alberta plan would exclude Canadian industry from these export opportunities and an international market estimated to be $400 billion.

The four federal options are not the definitive answer to meeting Canada’s obligation to reduce emissions, but they do show that the target is economically and technically feasible and can best be achieved within the international framework of the Kyoto Protocol.

Canadians should be working together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as an act of self defense against the economic, environmental and health impacts of climate change. By working together we can do so with out placing any undue burden on any region of Canada.

John Bennett is the Executive Director of the Climate Action Network of Canada and Director, Atmosphere and Energy, Sierra Club of Canada. He has worked on energy issues since the mid 1970s.

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