This week, U.S. President Barack Obama announced plans to limit carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. This bold step demonstrates his administration’s commitment to tackling human-caused global warming. Together with the vehicle fuel efficiency standard, the Obama administration has now introduced regulations for 60 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. These measures put the U.S. on track to meet their target of a 17 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions over 2005 levels by 2020 pledged under the Copenhagen Accord.
Although Canada followed its southern neighbor and major trading partner in setting the same 2020 greenhouse gas emission reduction target, the federal government has yet to deliver a plan about how to achieve these reductions.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper boasts that Canada put into effect regulations curbing carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants two years ahead of the U.S. These regulations, however, affect only new plants, leaving existing ones untouched. More importantly, these regulations will have a relatively small effect on Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, as coal does not contribute as significantly to Canada’s carbon emissions as it does in the U.S. In Canada, emissions from coal-fired power plants account for 11 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions compared to 38 percent in the U.S.
To achieve Obama-level cuts in carbon emissions, Canada has no choice but to address emissions from its biggest polluter: the oil and gas sector, accounting for 25 percent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. In particular, Canada must address the oil sands, the country’s fastest growing source of emissions. Though the Harper government has repeatedly announced that it would introduce regulations for the oil and gas sector, it has still to deliver on its promises. Without a serious commitment to regulate carbon emissions from the oil ad gas sector, Canada is bound to miss its Copenhagen greenhouse gas emission reduction target by far.
As scientific evidence about the risks posed by global warming mounts, atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping gases continue to increase. The consequences are already being felt worldwide, with rising sea levels, melting glaciers, and an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. The recent devastating floods in Serbia and severe drought in California are two current examples. As recently reported in the news, scientists have shown that the current level of warming will lead to the inevitable demise of a large section of the West Antarctic ice sheet, committing the planet to 1.2 metres of sea level rise. With a powerful El Niño building up in the equatorial Pacific, 2014 and 2015 could become the hottest years on record.
The impacts of global warming will continue to worsen unless carbon emissions are reduced significantly. In Copenhagen in 2009, countries agreed to limit warming to 2ºC, regarded as a threshold beyond which the environmental and socio-economic of global warming could become catastrophic. Meeting the 2ºC target requires stringent emission reductions and is achievable only if global greenhouse emissions peak and turn around within the next few years.
Heads of states will convene in New York in September to pave the road for a global climate agreement to be adopted at the United Nations climate conference in Paris in 2015. Reaching a strong agreement in Paris could be the last chance to avoid catastrophic global warming. With its plan to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, Obama has sent a stark signal to the international community demonstrating that the world’s second largest polluter is serious about tackling climate change. To have a measurable impact on the climate other big polluters will have to follow.
The pressure is on for Canada, having vowed to harmonize its climate policy to that of the U.S. Obama has taken the lead, and it’s time for Harper to catch up and present a credible plan to reduce Canada’s greenhouse emissions and abide by its pledges under the Copenhagen Accord.