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National GHG ambition has failed miserably, can we expect anything different from our iNDC?

Canada has failed miserably at aligning GHG policy with our stated ambition, whether Kyoto or Copenhagen. Given our track record can we expect anything different from our forthcoming iNDC? In this post I explore key certainties and opportunities relevant to developing Canada’s post-2020 Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), which will be tabled by the Government of Canada prior to the UNFCCC’s COP 21 in Paris 2015.

Three key certainties influence contribution setting. First, global technology spillovers are certain to make the transition to a low carbon future easier, notably in efficient vehicles and renewable electricity. Canada and our major trading partners all have standards that are driving low carbon innovation, reducing costs and increasing deployment. But there are gaps in innovation in large segments of Canada’s GHG inventory, making reduction potentials in oil and gas particularly uncertain.

Second, fluctuating oil and gas demand will impact Canadian production emissions. But this cuts both ways, and rebound in emissions in a low oil price future is certain in manufacturing, vehicles and buildings. We can’t take for granted a low oil price environment will necessarily lead to a lower emission trajectory.

Third, the cost of achieving Canada’s current Copenhagen target is certainly offside with carbon costs being contemplated by our main trading partners. Any iNDC must start from a realistic baseline forecast of national emissions not aligning with our Copenhagen target.

Contingent target holds promise to avoid backsliding, address uncertainties. The use of contingent targets in Norway, where increasing stringency is contingent on certain conditions being met, is an interesting option for Canada. Contingent targets also align nicely with the emerging UNFCCC trend towards five-year pledge and review periods in a post-2020 climate regime. Contingent targets would allow Canada to set a realistic contribution and then increase stringency to the extent competitiveness concerns are alleviated or national circumstances change.

The ambition killers. The political neurosis about the lost industrial output pathway can’t be understated, where unilateral action especially in the highly traded natural resource sector runs the risk of production and emission leakage. But, our production is likely not that sensitive to the small carbon costs contemplated to date, so a free ride for industrial emitters should not continue to be an ambition killer.

The lack of a unifying national climate policy architecture, even on the most basics of GHG accounting, monitoring and reporting, hinders our ability to keep costs low and ratchet down ambition. Recent provincial efforts to coordinate on administrative and political levels is a key success factor. Yet, federal coordination is badly needed, as well as financing to lubricate the transition that achieves the iNDC. Any iNDC needs at its core governance mechanisms to coordinate national action.

Alignment with other countries will likely kill ambition, again. We can be certain that iNDC alignment with the U.S. is likely a poor strategy given the very different relative abatement costs and emission reduction potentials. In looking at the EU, Norway and Australia, Canada’s emission intensity and GHG trajectory are out of line as well. There are likely no comparable countries with whom Canada can align its post-2020 national GHG contribution. So, lets not even try.

So then what is the path forward? In drawing on our work of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, we can identify the main leverage points within the Canadian economy where more emission reductions can be achieved.

We see significant opportunities to address transportation and buildings, especially with respect to increasing the stringency of energy efficiency standards.

Standards to control methane both in industrial use and landfill gas are also high priorities.

More aggressive policy could address liquid fuels, but jurisdictions other than B.C. and Québec would need to develop a liquid fuels policy.

Decarbonized electrification is also a significant opportunity, with a diverse national warehouse of potential and global technology spillovers decreasing costs. Learning-by-doing at home is also decreasing some of the soft renewable deployment costs, with low carbon electricity policy in every jurisdiction providing a foundation for more ambitious action. This trend needs to be reinforced.

The challenge of course is industrial process heat, especially in the oil and gas sector. Beyond very low levels of energy efficiency improvements in the sector, there are few improvements short of very expensive carbon capture and storage. Even carbon capture and storage has technical feasibility issues, with the need for innovation to both drive down costs and increase technical feasibility. Liquid fuels post a similar challenge, where second-generation biofuels are not technically feasible, thereby limiting deep GHG reductions from transport in the medium-term. These emergent technologies need innovation support at home.

Last thoughts. In the run up to Paris 2015 virtually anything Canada brings forward will likely be considered an iNDC. For Canada’s, balancing what is doable with what is politically salient both at home and abroad will be the major challenge. But with the global climate negotiating process looking to avoid the backsliding on ambition that has defined climate policy of the last 20 years, there is room for countries like Canada to set doable targets that are then contingent on going deeper in time.

Canada’s ambition will be judged against a 2° C global imperative that has emission reductions for Canada dropping tenfold. While this level of abatement is likely barely technically feasible and certainty a Harry Potter scenario (expecto decarbonis) from an economic or political perspective, longer-term aspirations will nevertheless need to signal Canada’s intent to go deep mid-century.

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