Photo: Canada should take its cue from Obama's climate plan

(Credit: Barack Obama via Flickr)

By Tyler Bryant, Energy Policy Analyst

In unveiling the U.S. Climate Action Plan on June 25, President Barack Obama may have also changed the game for climate change policy in Canada. The president spoke about the need to act on climate change, stating that climate change already comes with high costs of disaster relief and insurance, which will continue to increase. He also said the Keystone XL Pipeline from the Alberta oil sands to Texas refineries should not proceed if it will exacerbate climate change. "The net effects of the pipeline's impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward," he said.

Although it was far from a definitive statement on the pipeline's future, it was the clearest statement Obama has made on the fate of Keystone, focusing on the impact the pipeline would have on climate-changing emissions. The Canadian oil patch will have to demonstrate how 800,000 barrels a day of new production capacity won't increase greenhouse gas emissions. Most experts say oil sands emissions will go up if we don't take action, especially if new pipelines are built. It will be difficult for industry and government argue the pipeline won't drive up emissions when they have yet to implement any effective reduction measures and appear to have no clear plans to do so.

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Although Keystone is generating much of the attention, the biggest plank of Obama's plan deals with coal-fired power plants. Regulating coal-sector emissions is something he's required under the Clean Air Act to do, and it's an area in which Canada is ahead of the U.S. Obama's announcement on coal shows he's ready to lead when it comes to the country's biggest point source of greenhouse gas emissions — and an important sector of the U.S. economy. Coal power accounts for 45 per cent of total electricity generation and produces 34 per cent of the U.S.'s total GHG emissions. Canadian coal-generation emissions are much lower — just 10 per cent of the total and dropping, thanks in part to renewable energy policies and coal shutdowns from the Ontario government.

In Canada, oil and gas production represents the largest source of emissions. Oil and natural gas extraction, pipelining and refining account for a quarter of our total climate-warming emissions, and Environment Canada expects those to increase by 28 per cent by 2020. In taking on the biggest emissions sector in the U.S. and raising questions about the climate impact of new oil sands development, Obama makes it clear he expects others to lead as well. Canada can no longer afford to delay, obfuscate and confuse the issue further regarding policies to reduce greenhouse gases from our largest source. Outlining a clear plan to reduce emissions in the oil and gas sector is long overdue. As Obama has made clear, it's also essential if Canada expects the U.S. to approve new pipelines.

Canada can't afford to be left behind. If we truly want to be an "energy superpower", we have to look beyond our past practices of digging, selling and burning non-renewable fossil fuels. Strict greenhouse gas emissions controls and policy are a certainty, and as Obama has signalled, climate tests are being built into how the American government plans to do business. Whether the country is evaluating needs for new infrastructure, managing land and water resources or building new communities, it will make climate change impacts a consideration. For the resilience of our environment and economy, we would be wise to do the same.

The president also had harsh words for those who stand in the way of addressing the problem: "I don't have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. We don't have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it's not going to protect you from the coming storm. And ultimately, we will be judged as a people, and as a society, and as a country on where we go from here."

Canada will also be judged on where we go.

June 25, 2013

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Jul 03, 2013
8:06 PM

I just read an article, the USA is increasing coal production by millions of Tons a year and most of it is going to the west coast. They are building 2-3 new plants to send it to Asia. the CO2 concentration is going to way higher due to higher production. Obama is all talk, why isn't he shutting this down. He says lots of stuff about the environment but won't shut down the increased production.

Jun 26, 2013
6:43 AM

Wow! what a brilliant and welcome announcement from President Obama.

This signals a paradigm shift with the potential to save both the biosphere and the economy. The changes that will be required will create a much needed shift of money back into the job creating real economy.

Already we hear mouthpieces for the fossil fuel industry fear mongering about price increases on everything. They should be ignored by all, because if the marketplace adapts as it should without interference from Neo-Luddite plutocrats the effects of change should be all positive.

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