Hint: it's not what you think.

November 2015 has likely been the busiest month for Canadian climate policy makers, ever. Ontario released details of its cap and trade system, Alberta broke the mold and announced a new carbon tax, and BC is expected to announce its next generation climate policy in the coming weeks.  Justin Trudeau has also reset the federal-provincial relationship, by holding a meeting this week with premiers focused on climate change.  And of course, at the end of the month, Canadian leaders head to Paris for the UN Paris climate summit, to cement regional initiatives like those underway in Canadian provinces into a worldwide agreement.

The Paris summit is pitched as a bottom-up approach to dealing with climate change: rather than imposing targets on countries from the top, countries have been asked to submit their proposed commitments to reducing emissions throughout the year to the UN.  These commitments detail the amount of emission reductions that will be pursued in each country through 2025 or 2030. (There are now quite a number of studies that estimate the aggregate effect of these commitments; they suggest that existing commitments will help to curb climate change, but will still allow more than 2 degrees C of warming.)  Canada submitted its commitment – called an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) in the UN’s bureaucratese – in May of this year.

It is somewhat unclear what the status of Canada’s INDC is at this point – Trudeau has not had sufficient time to consult provinces meaningfully since taking office, and so will be going to Paris with the current INDC.  He has promised that it will be a floor on Canada’s mitigation effort, but it remains unclear whether there will be a formal update to the current commitment at some point in the future, or whether the current INDC will serve as part of whatever is negotiated in Paris.  So it’s worth considering exactly what’s in our commitment.

Given the usual amount of detail in anything climate-policy related, it is somewhat surprising that the INDC runs only 4 pages (the commitments of other countries are similarly short).  The main commitment has been widely reported: “As part of our contribution to a new global climate change agreement, Canada intends to achieve an economy-wide target to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.”

Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent over the coming 15 years (emissions are actually slightly below 2005 levels today) is, as the INDC puts it, “ambitious but achievable.”  It is a similar commitment to the one we made in Kyoto in 2003, or to the one we made in Copenhagen in 2010 (both of which we have or will fail to achieve by a large margin).  On its face, it is also relatively similar to the emission reduction pledges of other similar countries.  The US, for example, has promised to reduce emissions by about 27 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, and Australia has promised a 27 percent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030.

However, buried at the end of our INDC is a seemingly throwaway line that has significant implications for our target. The text in question: “Canada intends to account for the land sector using a net-net approach, and to use a ‘production approach’ to account for harvested wood products. Canada will exclude emissions from natural disturbances.”  This is a lot to process, so I’ll take it apart a bit at a time.

To begin with, it’s important to acknowledge that accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is due to two main human activities: the emission of greenhouse gases (primarily from burning fossil fuels), and changing land use (primarily cutting down forests).  When we reduce net emissions from either of these sources, it affects the rate of accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  In principle, it makes sense to include both of these sources in our INDC submission, since we want to provide broad incentives to reduce our greenhouse gas footprint.  However, most of our headline estimates of current and future GHG emissions, including from the government of Canada, exclude emissions from changing land use, so including them here is a little confusing.

Having established what land use emissions are, I want to consider how their inclusion in the INDC affects our target.  Let’s take the first part of the text above first: “Canada intends to account for the land use sector using a ‘net-net’ approach.”  Essentially this means that Canada will compare net land use emissions in the benchmark year (2005) and the target year (2030).  If emissions from land use are high in the benchmark year and low in the target year, this will help count towards our climate target.

Figure 1 below illustrates net land use change emissions in Canada (excluding natural disturbances, as per the INDC text; see details of my calculations below) from 1990 to 2013, with the federal government forecast to 2030.  The figure shows that land use was a small net emissions sink in 2005, and is forecast to be a much more significant sink through 2030.  Net emissions from the sector were at their largest in 2005, and are shrinking thereafter.  Importantly, the shrinking mostly doesn’t reflect climate policy: it’s a result of on-going change in the industry.  In particular, the demand for forest products has declined (you’re reading this article on a computer, not a piece of paper; demand for lumber dropped following the US housing collapse).  In addition, there are a number of on-going changes in technology and practice in the sector, such as more planting rather than natural regrowth of forests.

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Figure 1: Blue solid line – historic land use emissions; blue dashed line – forecast land use emissions. Source: Environment Canada and calculations.

Conveniently, the 2005 peak in Canada’s net land use emissions corresponds exactly with the baseline year that Canada has adopted (the EU chose 1990 as a baseline year for their commitment for similar reasons).  Including land use emissions in our target has the effect of reducing the amount that needs to be achieved from other sources by 126 Mt, according to my calculations (I’ll admit that I’ve found it very difficult to reconcile numbers from various government sources in conducting my calculations, which are described below – please let me know if there’s a difficulty with my numbers).  Rather than having to cut our industrial greenhouse gas emissions by 30%, as suggested by the INDC headline, our emissions need only fall by 13% from 2005 levels to his our target, once our land use emissions are included.  This is illustrated in the Figure 2 below.

The second issue in the throwaway line has to do with emissions from harvested wood products.  Normally, once wood is harvested, we count all of the embodied carbon in the wood as being released to the atmosphere.  This is a fiction, since the 2 by 4’s in the wall of my 100 year old house are clearly still retaining carbon.  But it’s a convenient fiction, since it’s straightforward to account for.  Canada (like the US) has proposed a change in accounting: it will attempt to account for the carbon as it released from harvested wood products into the atmosphere rather than when the forest is turned into lumber.  In addition, rather than accounting for emissions from wood products in Canada, it will account for emissions of wood products produced by Canada.  I haven’t tried to calculate the change in our target that this change will have, but I suspect that choosing this new accounting stance was strategic and it has been estimated by government that adopting this accounting rule has the effect of weakening our target, i.e., reducing the amount of emissions that need to be reduced through climate policy.

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Figure 2: Solid black line – projected emissions; dashed line – forecast emissions; green line – INDC 30% target; green triangle – 30% target with adjustments for land use change.  Source: Environment Canada and calculations.

 

Trying to reduce GHG emissions by 30% over the course of 15 years can be legitimately considered “ambitious but achievable.”  However, if accounting changes mean that we have effectively already achieved more than half of that target, then it’s clear that the label no longer applies.

As has been said hundreds of times in the past, it’s not the target that matters, it’s the policy.  However, Canadians (and the rest of the world) use Canada’s target as a benchmark for where policy is going.  If seemingly small accounting changes make it difficult to know what our target is, it isn’t doing its job.

Likewise if Canadian climate policies only target a 13% reduction in emissions by 2030 rather than a 30% reduction, we will not be doing our part to fight climate change.  Hopefully, the new government can fix both the transparency issue and the ambition issue when it revisits its target following the Paris summit.

 

Method for estimating net LULUCF emissions excluding natural disturbances. I obtain an estimate of net emissions/removals from LULUCF from Canada’s 2014 submission of Common Reporting Format to the UNFCCC.  Net emissions of CO2, CH4, and N2O are in Table 5, cells B7, C7, and D7, respectively.  I obtain an estimate of emissions from natural disturbances (wildfires) from Table 5(V), cells E12, F12, and G12, respectively.  I convert to CO2e using emissions factors of 25 and 298 for CH4 and N2O.  I subtract emissions from natural disturbances from net LULUCF emissions to obtain an estimate of LULUCF emissions without natural disturbances.  I repeat this for every year from 1990 to 2014.  For forecast emissions I use Canada’s Sixth National Communication on Climate Change.  Forecast net LULUCF emissions excluding natural disturbance are reported in Table 5.18 on page 91.

 Photo: Tom Reichner / Shutterstock.com