Alberta’s ‘firewall’ approach to climate change

Alberta’s ‘firewall’ approach to climate change

September 15, 2009

Gillian Steward

There’s been talk lately that the Harper government’s climate change policy will favour oil sands production at the expense of Ontario and Quebec’s manufacturing sector.

Environment Minister Jim Prentice has publicly denied that he is promoting such a scheme in private meetings.

But the suspicion lingers on, mainly because the Harperites have yet to produce a clear and detailed plan that spells out exactly how they intend to curb greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, and particularly in Alberta, the country’s largest emitter.

Alberta has had its own carbon cap-and-trade system up and running for the last two years. It was established as a nod to the need to do something about greenhouse gases before the federal government imposed its own rules, regulations and price for carbon.

It’s a firewall approach – hands off, we’ll do it our way – but since it was the brainchild of a Conservative government that works hand in glove with the oil and gas industry, it provides plenty of clues as to what the Harperites might have in mind when it comes to national policies and regulations.

First, it doesn’t place a cap on total carbon emissions. Alberta’s system is based on intensity targets, which means that the amount of carbon dioxide emitted to produce a barrel of oil, for example, has to go down but there is no limit on the rate of production. So, in the near future each barrel of oil won’t be as dirty, but since there will be a lot more oil produced from the tar sands, emissions will go up. Even long-term goals are low: a 14 per cent reduction from 2005 levels by 2050.

Developing countries such as China and India also favour intensity-based targets rather than hard caps so they can reduce the rate of emissions growth while they continue to grow their economies.

Under Alberta’s plan, 100 large emitting facilities, responsible for roughly half of provincial emissions, have three options. They can invest in energy efficiency to reduce the intensity of emissions by 12 per cent. They can buy credits or offsets within the province. (Prentice recently introduced a national offset program similar to Alberta’s.) Or they can pay into a technology fund – $15 per tonne of carbon emissions over the targeted reduction. Most of the fund will be used to develop carbon sequestration, which is years away in practice and still unproven.

Only old operations were expected to comply. Alberta’s newest industrial emitters of greenhouse gases – and that would include new oil sands operations – were given a grace period of up to nine years to fully meet the goal.

During the first year of the plan, 78 per cent of companies chose to pay into the technology fund and $180 million was raised. The bulk of the rest went into offsets, such as payments to farmers for tilling practices that reduce greenhouse gases. Only a few emitters made their facilities genuinely more efficient.

So far, Alberta’s plan is a great bookkeeping endeavour but has done little to curb emissions.

If we do have an election in the next few weeks, it’s unlikely climate change policies will be a central issue, even though the international climate change conference in Copenhagen in December could establish a new, binding international treaty to control emissions.

Neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals want to put the issue on the table, and besides, climate change initiatives are too complicated to introduce and debate in such a short time.

So the rumours will persist, and in the meantime Canadians will have very little say in one of the most important issues of our time.

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist, and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. Her column appears every other week.


~ by Cory Morningstar on September 18, 2009.

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