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Alberta forecasts greenhouse gas emissions will peak in early 2020s

Deputy Premier, Minister of Health, Sarah Hoffman (left) and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley applaud Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci after tabling the 2017 provincial budget, in Edmonton, on March 16, 2017.

Jason Franson/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Long the country's leading producer of greenhouse gases, Alberta now forecasts its emissions will peak in the early part of the next decade – a stark change from other predictions that emissions growth in the oil and gas-focused province would continue until at least 2030.

The government is not straying from its key money maker – crude – and still predicts that Alberta's heavy oil production will grow in the years ahead. But the adjusted greenhouse gas forecast comes as a result of its Climate Leadership Plan, which includes economy-wide carbon pricing, energy efficiency measures, the phasing out of coal-fired electricity by 2030 and a greater focus on wind, solar and hydro power.

It also includes an emissions cap of 100 megatonnes a year on the oil sands.

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Prior to the Climate Leadership Plan, "Alberta's emissions were forecast to grow for decades to come," the province said in its budget documents released Thursday.

"Emissions are now expected to peak in the early 2020s."

The climate strategy has raised hackles from an energy industry that is already struggling with depressed oil and natural gas prices, and increased competition from growing low-cost production in the United States. On the other side, environmentalists believe the province's actions won't be enough to counter increasing emissions from Alberta's rich oil sands deposits – and will lead Canada to miss its Paris Agreement target of a 30-per-cent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2030.

Under successive Progressive Conservative governments, Alberta's climate change goals were always about reducing emissions "intensity" – or the amount of emissions per unit of production. That meant the absolute volume of emissions in the province would continue to grow for decades alongside increasing oil and gas production.

Alberta's NDP government, elected in 2015, hasn't set a specific overall greenhouse gas reduction target. But the climate change advisory panel – which provided the main guidance to the government about how to proceed on climate change – said under its plan annual emissions would stabilize at about 270 megatonnes by 2030, which is just about at the province's current levels.

But the Alberta government's forecast released Thursday, and written early this year, changes the calculation. Alberta officials weren't immediately able to provide a more detailed breakdown of their prediction, but the forecast now says it expects the province will hit its peak emission levels in the early 2020s. Alberta officials say that federal projections that show the province's greenhouse gases increasing all the way to 2030 don't take into account all of the province's actions on climate change.

At a minimum, the province said it will achieve significant emission reductions from current trends. It will accomplish this, it says, even as bitumen production grows by almost 33 per cent between now and 2020 – to almost 3.3 million barrels a day, from the current 2.5 million barrels a day – as oil sands projects currently under construction are completed. (Conventional oil production is forecast to decline.)

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The government said this is because "many of the actions and targets under the [climate] plan are stronger than what was outlined in the panel's recommendations."

This, the government said, includes significant investment in improving energy efficiency throughout the province, reducing methane emissions in the oil and gas sector to 45 per cent below 2014 levels by 2025, and the cap on oil sands emissions.

"The cumulative actions of Alberta's carbon pricing scheme, coupled with transitioning to a cleaner electricity system and long-term investment of carbon pricing revenue, will generate additional emissions reductions," the budget documents said.

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