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U.S. emissions pledge puts Alberta on the spot

Washington has laid out a path on climate-change policy, and challenged Ottawa to follow it. One way or another, the road leads directly to Alberta.

President Barack Obama on Monday unveiled a plan to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from coal-fired electricity generation by 30 per cent by 2030, and his new ambassador to Canada, Bruce Heyman, urged Canada to join the United States and slash carbon emissions.

This puts the ball squarely in the court of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has long maintained that Canada align its own policy on carbon cuts with that of the United States, its neighbour and leading trading partner (including a substantial trade in electricity and other energy sources). Now, with Mr. Obama's proposed coal cuts targeting about 10 per cent of the U.S.'s total GHG emissions, the implication is that Canada has more or less committed to match those reductions. (Both countries pledged to cut GHG emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020.)

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To do so, something in energy-intensive Alberta will have to give.

Alberta's GHG emissions are the highest, by a significant margin, in the country – it accounts for more than one-third of the national total, and its per-capita emissions rate is more than triple the national average. While Environment Canada has forecast that most provinces' emissions will be flat or lower to the end of the current decade, Alberta's GHG output is projected to jump another 20 per cent over 2011 levels.

Most of that increase is coming from oil sands production – Alberta's single largest source of GHG emissions. Oil sands emissions increased more than 60 per cent from 2005 to 2011, due entirely to production growth; Environment Canada estimates that given future growth expectations, emissions could nearly double from 2011 to 2020, unless significant technological changes are made.

Now, Canada might take the easy way out, by choosing to interpret the new U.S. plan as an effort specifically targeted at coal power generation – and craft its own matching efforts in a similar narrow coal-fighting vein. It would hardly be have an equivalent impact: Coal now accounts for only about 10 per cent of Canada's power generation, compared with nearly 40 per cent of the U.S. electricity supply. Still, Mr. Harper's quick response to Mr. Obama's plan was to point out that Canada already cracked down on coal-fired power plant emission in 2012 – suggesting he is, indeed, prepared to view the U.S. plan as being specific to coal. (He could also point to Ontario, which completed a phase-out of all coal-fired power plants earlier this year, thus already eliminating nearly one-third of Canada's total coal-power generation since 2005.)

But even then, Alberta has the emissions-reduction target painted on its back. The province is by far the heaviest user of coal for electricity in the country, accounting for more than 60 per cent of Canada's coal-fired generation. More than half of Alberta's electricity supply comes from coal plants, an even heavier reliance than the United States. Its GHGs from coal power are nearly as high as its oil sands emissions.

Even if Mr. Harper can get away with responding to the U.S. plan by targeting Canada's coal emissions and keeping the oil sands out of it – which would be quite the trick – it's going to mean a major change in Alberta's mindset. Canada can do little to address its GHG emissions pledges, to the United States and the world, without Alberta leading the way.

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About the Author
Economics Reporter

David Parkinson has been covering business and financial markets since 1990, and has been with The Globe and Mail since 2000. A Calgary native, he received a Southam Fellowship from the University of Toronto in 1999-2000, studying international political economics. More

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