The Need for a Canadian Climate Test


The Need for a Canadian Climate Test

For years, the question of whether a particular project’s greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions are at odds with Canada’s climate promises has plagued climate activists, project proponents, and decision-makers alike. Under the Paris Agreement, Canada has promised to reduce its emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. The government has also committed to achieving net zero emissions by no later than 2050.

However, Canada has missed every GHG reduction target it has ever set, and it is unclear whether or how it will meet its 2030 goal. As of 2018 (the latest year for which data is available), Canada’s emissions were 729 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (“Mt CO2 eq”), 218 Mt CO2 eq above the 2030 target. And last November, the United Nations Environment Programme found that Canada was set to miss the target by 15%.

Meanwhile, high-emitting projects continue to be put forward. In BC, the proposed expansion of the Kitimat Liquefied Natural Gas (“LNG”) plant would emit an additional four Mt CO2 eq per year, and larger LNG projects have already been approved. In Alberta, Suncor is proposing to expand its tar sands operation Base Mine, which would add another three Mt CO2 eq into the atmosphere annually.

How can decision-makers determine whether any given amount of GHG emissions will thwart Canada’s ability to meet its reductions targets?

In 2019, the federal government enacted the Impact Assessment Act, SC 2019, c 28, s 1 (the “IAA”), which, among other things, requires impact assessments to consider the extent to which designated projects will help or hinder Canada’s ability to meet its climate commitments. While federal assessments considered projects’ climate impacts under previous legislation, for the first time, the IAA requires projects’ emissions to be considered in the context of Canada’s emissions reductions targets.

However, comparing individual projects against national targets will remain a challenge. How should assessments consider regional fairness? For example, how many big emitters can be approved in Alberta without leaving other provinces’ economies on the hook for a disproportionate amount of reductions?

Similarly, is it reasonable to approve major petroleum projects if it means sectors like buildings, transportation, and agriculture will be forced to shave greater emissions from their operations? And what about projects with lifespans beyond 2030, or even 2050? How do we account for four Mt CO2 eq that will be emitted in 2050 when we must be at net zero?

Federal guidance states that if federal emissions targets are set, assessments will consider the project within the context of those targets.

The Liberal government has committed to introducing net zero legislation that could go a long way to providing the kind of framework needed to ensure that projects align with Canada doing its fair share to avoid a climate catastrophe. For example, if that legislation requires the federal government to set five-year carbon budgets (the total GHGs Canada can emit within a five-year period) for different regions and sectors, those budgets would provide much-needed clarity to authorities when determining whether projects align with long-term GHG reductions goals.

Of course, federal climate targets must respect the constitutional division of powers. The Supreme Court of Canada’s decision on the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act is expected early next year. Depending on how the Court defines the scope of federal jurisdiction over climate, that decision could be a helpful guide in framing federal authority over setting climate targets and pathways for meeting them. Otherwise, the federal government may need to boldly assert authority to set and meet regional and sectoral carbon caps.

Given the intensity of the climate crisis and need for urgent action, the time is now for project-level decision-making to clearly align with our climate commitments and obligations.