Missing the Copenhagen Target

On February 15, with the Conservatives’ typical, quiet Friday afternoon, splash-less launch, the 2012 Progress Report to the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy was tabled in the House of Commons. The following week was a break in the Parliamentary schedule, and, so far, the report has been ignored in the national media.

If you have had any exposure to the talking points repeated, ad nauseum, by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Environment Minister Peter Kent, and Michelle Rempel (Kent’s Parliamentary secretary) on Canada’s actions in reducing Greenhouse gases (GHG), you will have heard that ‘Canada is half way to our Copenhagen target.’ This is the target adopted by Stephen Harper when he attended the climate talks, COP15, in 2009.

It represented the second time Harper weakened Canada’s target. The first, rejecting the Kyoto pledge (6% below 1990 levels by 2012) in 2006, was immediately after he became Prime minister. He cancelled the previous government’s climate plan, which actually would have gotten us quite close to the Kyoto target. Instead, he promised to reduce 2006 levels by 20% by 2020.

Canada’s Emission Targets Target Target Date All GHGs (Mtonnes CO2eq) Year Target Set
Kyoto 6% below 1990 2008-2012 558 1997
“Made in Canada” 20% below 2006 2020 574 2006
Science-based 25% below 1990 2020 442 2007
Copenhagen 17% below 2005 2020 607 2009

The United Nations gathering in Copenhagen was tragically hijacked by a backroom deal, orchestrated by the US, called the ‘Copenhagen Accord.’ Unlike the legally binding Kyoto protocol, The Copenhagen Accord was described as ‘politically binding.’ It also gave Stephen Harper a chance to weaken our target further by adopting the same one announced by Barack Obama – 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. As it happened, Canada’s emissions were higher in 2005 than in 2006—a convenient anomaly that further weakened our pledge.

As well, the Copenhagen Accord included a commitment from signing nations that their collective resolve must avoid allowing the global average temperatures to increase by 2ºC above what they were before the Industrial Revolution. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessed the collectivity of pledges by the Copenhagen Accord signatories and concluded that the pledges fell far short of avoiding the 2ºC threshold. No matter how you slice it, Copenhagen targets were too little, weak and inadequate.

So, it may be that we are inured to the idea that the target matters. Or it may be that our cognitive processes automatically reject the possibility that the whole government, including departmental reports, can be lying to us.

The February 15 update states: that ‘Canada’s 2020 emissions are projected to be about one-half of the way to the target.’ Before examining the actual claim that we are halfway to the target, let’s underscore the blazingly obvious point that the self-congratulatory sentence confirms—by the date the pledge is due, by the deadline year of 2020, we will have failed to achieve the goal.

Half of What?

Now, let’s look at that claim that in 2020 we will be half way there. In 2005 emissions were 740 Megatons (Mt). 17% of 740 is 126. So Harper’s pledge (17% below 2005 levels by 2020) means, that by 2020, Canada should have reduced by 126Mt.

But the emissions graph used in the Environment Canada report shows our 2020 emissions at 720Mt. Not tough math. 720 is 20 less than 740, and there isn’t any new math in the world that makes 20 half of 126.

So, how can they get away with even attempting to say that 720Mt is half-way to the target?

Well, they have thrown in a red herring.

The graph includes an estimate (the red line) of what they claim would have happened without government action—a ‘business as usual’ figure for 2020 of 850Mt. Not uninteresting, and perhaps of some use for other comparisons, if in fact, the estimate is based on any reasonable assumptions and methodologies. (We will have to guess on that because no set of assumptions or methodologies are disclosed).

To re-state the obvious, the Copenhagen pledge was straight-forward (although weak and inadequate) and no element of the Copenhagen target makes a business-as-usual figure relevant. The imaginary whopping big 850Mt that won’t happen is only useful in confusing the picture.

The Conservatives’ talking points also claim that they have reduced GHG emissions. And it is true that in 2010 emissions were down to 692Mt. This is explained by some provincial actions, but primarily was due to the world- wide recession.

I think it is unlikely that the Prime Minister would claim credit for the recession as a deliberate climate policy.

It is galling to hear the lie repeated over and over that the Conservative policies are responsible for reducing emissions. Especially as emissions are rising rapidly, slated to go from 692Mt in 2010 to 720Mt by 2020.

Maybe no one can absorb the numbers – admittedly, as I write this, I worry there are too many numbers. Environment Canada further complicates the picture by adjusting 2005 levels to 731Mt, making the 2020 reduction only 11Mt).

But the millions of tons of GHG Canada dumps into the global atmosphere really matter. Our trail of broken promises will be noticed, if not in Canada, around the world.