Prairie Resilience: A Token Gesture of a Climate Action Plan

After a summer of raging wildfires, air quality alerts and scorching temperatures across much of Canada, the government of Saskatchewan has added further details to what is now a long-delayed plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The announcement by Environment Minister Dustin Duncan of a flexible, hybrid carbon pricing/emissions allowance trading system provides some measure of control over emissions from heavy industry. However, these industries account for only 10% of provincial emissions and, if successful, the system would result in about a 1% cut in provincial emissions.

With this announcement, the government has confirmed that Prairie Resilience: A Made in Saskatchewan Climate Change Strategy will go forward. Within the plan is a commitment to reduce methane emissions from upstream oil and gas sector activities by 40%. In addition, grid penetration by renewables (wind, solar and hydro) will increase such that these zero emissions energy sources will account for 50% of power production by 2030.

The government of Saskatchewan champions the role of innovation in combatting climate change. Without doubt, Saskatchewan has made an important contribution in advancing commercial scale carbon capture and storage technology. CCS will be applied to various industrial processes as economies progressively decarbonize over the next 40 years. However, the application of CCS to coal-fired power plants is misplaced and this option for the production of electricity is unlikely to compete with 0 emissions alternatives. The $1.2 billion investment in CCS at Boundary Dam will cut provincial emissions by only 0.7% annually. Due to cost considerations, plans to replicate CCS at other coal-fired facilities in the province have been shelved.

In assessing provincial emissions, the government points to the contribution of agricultural soils. Indeed, zero-till farming practices in Saskatchewan have transitioned agricultural soils from a source of emissions to active withdrawal of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In 2015, 11.4 million tonnes of CO2 were sequestered by the farmlands in Saskatchewan. However, this soil uptake of carbon balances emissions that took place over many decades of earlier farming practices. Further, soil carbon sinks were in place by 2005 and must be included in calculating baseline emissions if they are to be used in developing targets for controlling future emissions.

Current annual emissions in Saskatchewan, approximate 67 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents per person. This level of per capita emissions is over 3-fold greater than the national average and among the highest in the world. Extensive agriculture and oil and gas sector activities along with a continued reliance on coal-fired power plants are the major contributors to the high rates of emissions from Saskatchewan. In the absence of climate policies, the government estimates that annual emissions would increase from 69 to 81 million tonnes between 2005 and 2030. With the implementation of Saskatchewan’s climate action plan, projections for year 2030 emissions are similar to emissions on record for the 2005 and Saskatchewan would fall well short of regional obligations to contribute to the national efforts to combat climate change. Under the Paris agreement, Canada has committed to cut year 2030 emissions by at least 30% relative to emissions on record for 2005.

Saskatchewan has an opportunity to implement a more ambitious climate action plan. In contrast to the government’s stated opinion, the majority of economists and a growing list of large corporations, including the conventional energy giants Shell, ExxonMobil and BP, are strong proponents of carbon pricing mechanisms. By putting a price on greenhouse gas pollution, consumers and industry are incentivised to change practices to more efficient, lower cost, lower emissions options.

BC’s revenue neutral carbon fee was initiated in 2008. Relative to the 2005 baseline, gasoline sales per person in BC have dropped by 10% and emissions have declined by 5%. Carbon fee revenues are recycled back into the economy via cuts in other taxes such that the net effect of the tax shift has been beneficial to tax payers. BC’s GDP has grown by 21% since 2005 and the carbon tax has had little to no discernible effect on the economic performance. Over the same time period, in the absence of meaningful climate policies, per person gasoline sales in Saskatchewan have increased by 16% and provincial emission went up 10%.

Saskatchewan could commit to a phase out of coal-fired power plants by 2030 and could implement an economy-wide carbon pricing system. A gradual transition to a low carbon economy could be managed by promoting growth in new industries. Saskatchewan’s long history of innovation in agriculture should invaluable given the importance of land use, efficient food production and the role of biomass in a decarbonized future.

Committing to an ambitious climate action plan that transitions consumer and industry practices to low carbon alternatives requires visionary political leadership that thinks beyond the constraints of short-term electoral cycles and the temporary inconvenience of higher fossil fuel prices. Strong leadership is required if we are to avoid imposing the severe costs and damages of unchecked climate change on future generations.

Data sources: Statistics Canada, Canada’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory, Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, Climate Leadership Council, Government of Saskatchewan White Paper on Climate Change, and Prairie Resilience: A Made-in-Saskatchewan Climate Change Strategy.

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