** This article is a summary of a substantial research project into the achievability of Canada’s current emissions reduction plan and official climate change policy - the full report can be found at https://sites.google.com/view/canadian-climate-policy/full-report **
Climate change is a low priority issue within EA, with little focus or funding being directed towards this cause area. EA assessments of climate change tend to be far too simplistic, failing to grasp how the interplay between felt temperature rises, soil fertility collapse, fresh water depletion and biodiversity loss are creating the perfect conditions for a major collapse in global food production. In addition to this there seems to be a perception that climate change is not neglected, perhaps driven by the large amount of media coverage that it receives. However, media coverage is in no way translating into meaningful funding or the implementation of effective solutions, as my Canadian case study will highlight.
I will first discuss some alarming trends at a global level, so as to show the true probable severity of climate change. I will then present a summary of my assessment of Canadian climate policy, which will serve as a case study for showing the huge gap between official policy targets and realistic outcomes. I undertook a three month research project into Canadian climate policy all of my detailed research notes and references can be found here.
Reframing the climate change debate
Before beginning my assessment of Canadian climate change policy, I believe it’s worth taking the time to reframe how we talk about climate change globally, in particular how mainstream reporting metrics and language fail to convey the likely severity of temperature increases, resource exhaustion and biodiversity loss.
Most important is the need to move away from the use of global average temperatures, which show heating across all of the world’s atmosphere as one simple number. This approach substantially understates how large you can expect any future temperature increase to feel, primarily because the air temperature increases much more over land than it does over sea. Even on land the heating experienced is far from uniform, with hotter areas forecast to experience a greater amount of heating than more temperate areas. When these factors are combined with the high population growth predicted in hotter countries, one report finds that 3.0 degrees celsius of averaged global warming translates to an average temperature increase as felt per individual of 7.5 degrees celsius.1 The same report estimates that 30% of the world’s predicted population will then be living in areas with an average temperature equal to or above the hottest parts of the Sahara desert by 2070.
The climate science organisation ‘Climate Action Tracker’ models probable global average warming in 2100 to be 2.5 - 2.9 degrees celsius above pre-industrial levels under current global policies and actions.2 However this estimated temperature rise depends heavily on how they have discounted the effectiveness of current published net-zero plans for different countries. While these are clearly discounted by Climate Action Tracker, It is likely these are still given more credence than they deserve - as my research in the Canadian context will highlight. This means estimates, possibly erring on the side of optimism, see the world on course for 3 degrees average warming, or an average felt temperature increase of 7.5 degrees celsius. (Note I have contacted Climate Action Tracker to ask how they have assessed key Canadian emissions sources for use in their model - I’m awaiting a response).
Furthermore, with a projected global population of nearly 11 billion people by 2100,3 managing to protect and distribute our fragile resources of food production and clean water will clearly be a huge challenge. While future food production models predict declining global crop yields for every degree of global warming,4 these models only capture the relatively simplistic relationship between temperature and crop yields, and fail to capture the alarming rates of soil fertility collapse and globally depleting water reserves.
Intensive agricultural techniques have caused nearly a third of the world’s arable land to be abandoned in just a 40 year period,5 6 highlighting the extreme vulnerability of our food supply chains and the unsustainable nature of intensive modern farming practices.
At the same time total global water use is outstripping replenishment from rainfall, meaning that over half of the world’s aquifers are considered to be in a state of depletion.7 This is primarily driven by agriculture which accounts for 70% of global water use,8 meaning that the world’s main growing regions are also the areas suffering some of the worst water depletion. Approximately half of the world’s population currently live in water scarce regions, and 27% of the global population lives in severely water-scarce areas.9
I could have listed other equally worrying ecological trends that feed into and worsen food and water security, such as the rapid wetland and biodiversity loss currently occurring, with the former being essential for freshwater storage.10 But for brevity I’ve chosen to highlight how unsustainable current agriculture is. Clearly intense temperature changes in the areas people live, combined with collapsing soil fertility and depleting water reserves bring to the fore the far more urgent need for major societal and technological changes to mitigate the effects of climate change and modern land and resource practices.
For the purpose of my research, climate change policy is represented by Canada’s ‘2030 Emissions Reduction Plan’,11 which is the government’s published roadmap outlining its policies and funding support for reducing the country's emissions 40% below 2005 levels by 2030. This plan is supposed to be a stepping stone toward Canada’s target of net-zero by 2050. The plan was published in March 2022 and so represents a fairly up to date snapshot of the Federal government's strategy toward climate change.
To assess this policy I reviewed it against a list of nearly one hundred different solutions which are considered highly effective ways to combat climate change. I derived the original list of solutions from Project Drawdown, before tailoring these solutions to Canada and adding a few additional solutions I considered important. In total I researched nearly one hundred different solutions. I selected seventy of these as being particularly effective or relevant to Canada and grouped them into nine categories. You can see my detailed research notes (organised by sector and solution) in the below airtable:
Assessment of Canadian climate policy
I have grouped my research into nine different emissions producing areas of society, which broadly mirrors how the Canadian government has categorised emissions in its reduction plan. I have also included an additional category for funding, as this was a substantial research area in its own right. For this summary report I have only briefly outlined the most material findings, meaning that many important aspects are omitted. For a more complete picture see my full report (or for those interested in specific solutions or cause areas, all of my research is organised by sector and solution here).
Electricity - 2019 emissions 61 MT Co2e, 2030 stated target 14 MT
Currently Canada has one of the greenest energy grids in the world, with 82% of its energy coming from renewable sources (mostly hydro) and nuclear. Phasing out coal plants is forecast to reduce annual emissions by 13 MT, with the only other clear reduction policies relating to a carbon tax and carbon capture funding, aimed at natural gas power stations. How these reductions will be achieved is unclear, with environmental groups voicing strong and rational criticisms of why carbon capture technology is completely ineffective.12 I think it is very uncertain as to whether Canada will achieve its forecast 47 MT emissions reduction.
Canada will need to double or triple its generating capacity by 2050 if it is to meet the power demand caused by electrification of current fossil fuel dependent activities (e.g. electrification of transport and heating).13 However Its own energy regulator estimates that Canada is on course for just a 25% increase in generating capacity by 2050.14
Grid infrastructure projects are complex and usually take decades from inception to completion. Canada is failing to meaningfully scale its grid capacity, meaning that solutions which depend on electrification (such as electric vehicles and heat pumps) are certain to either fail or have their adoption delayed by decades.
Transportation - 2019 emissions 186 MT Co2e, 2030 stated target of 143 MT
Canada's emissions from transport are currently significantly underestimated as it does not include emissions from international air travel and international shipping. Its main policy is to support electric passenger vehicle uptake, which is one of the few solutions it is adequately funding. However it has no clear plan for decarbonising heavy goods transport which emitted nearly as much as passenger vehicles in 2019. There are also major battery supply constraints which make rapid electric vehicle uptake by 2030 seem unlikely.15 In the longer run Canada does not have the grid capacity to seriously scale electric vehicle adoption, and with electric vehicles accounting for just 5.2% of new car sales in 202116 - making the forecast emission reductions by 2030 seems unlikely.
Essential Environments & Carbon Sinks [30 MT reduction forecast against this category]
Canada contains roughly a quarter of the world's wetlands, a fifth of the world's temperate rainforest and the longest coastline in the world. Unfortunately Canada does not track the environmental health of lands which are not directly managed for industry, meaning that emissions from degrading wetland/peatland, seafloors damaged by bottom trawling and non-managed forests are not measured. Even small amounts of damage to these environments can cause huge emissions, and what evidence I could find indicates that substantial damage is probably occurring.
I estimate that Canada's wetlands could contain 550 GT of Co2e (roughly eleven years worth of current global emissions),17 and they are being damaged by drainage put in for activities such as logging and mining. It is impossible to quantify the current rate of damage, but the few areas where wetlands have been measured generally show declines in their extent,18 with approximately 70% of wetlands lost from the southern areas of Canada.19
Furthermore, despite having a huge and extensive wilderness, key metrics for biodiversity loss and ecosystem health are alarming. Global trends for insect collapse show that 80% of insects (measured by total weight) have died off in a period that could be as short as the last 30 years.20 There have been no major studies of insect population trends in Canada, but insect eating birds (a rough proxy for insect populations) have experienced the worst rate of decline of any bird type, decreasing by 60% in Canada since the 1970’s.21
There are also alarming trends in grassland conversion to agricultural land and continued fish stock declines (see full report) - though as for virtually all major ecosystems in Canada there is very limited data. In summary, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse seem likely to be occurring in many areas, and Canada is probably underestimating it’s official emissions by hundreds of megatonnes per year (driven by C02e released from wetlands, trawled coastlines and grassland converted to agricultural land).
Food Production - 2019 emissions 73 MT Co2e, 2030 stated target of 71 MT
Direct Co2e emissions from farming are a much smaller issue than the side effects caused by modern farming techniques. The key issues facing Canada are soil fertility collapse and increased droughts in the prairies (80% of Canada's farmland).22The global rate of arable land collapse is very high, with several studies concluding that up to a third of global cropland collapsed and became unusable in the last 40 years,23 with wealthier Western countries generally having the worst rates of soil fertility collapse (for example the US may have lost up to half of its cropland since 1980).24
The Canadian government has no official figures on the rate of abandoned farmland, but it seems likely to be in line with other Western countries. The prairies experienced a dramatic increase in irrigation needs of 74% between 2012 and 2018, with the main driver being reduced rainfall during the growing season.25
To prevent continued soil fertility collapse would require moving away from intensive modern farming techniques to potential lower yield but more traditional mixed crop approaches, but currently the economic incentives and risks are far too great to make this a viable option for farmers.
Globally livestock products generate only 17% of calories and drive nearly 80% of agricultural land use - clearly marking this area of agriculture out as unsustainable in light of the resource exhaustion it drives.26 Like most high income countries Canada spends a huge amount subsidising livestock products, an estimated $8 - $10 billion per annum (two to three times more than my estimate of its climate change spending).27
Even though Canada is spending $620 million over 6 years to encourage better farming practices, this funding is surely far too little to reduce the risks farmers take in changing production methods. Policies to cause major change in agriculture would in all likelihood require government sponsored insurance schemes and strong legislation to force behaviour change, none of which are forthcoming. Such substantive policies are not part of any of the major political parties' agendas,28 and without political cognisance and will for such actions - it appears inevitable that current trends will continue.
Perennial crops and fermentation produced protein offer two hugely exciting technologies which could provide meaningful scalable solutions to the issues associated with agriculture at present. Perennial crops only need to be planted every few years, meaning that farmland does not need to be regularly tilled - which is the main driver of soil carbon loss. Current research on this area appears to be carried out by a very small number of institutes, so a very small amount of government funding could help rapidly decrease the time it takes to develop viable perennial crops.
Fermentation produced protein is a new technology that can produce large quantities of protein not only economically, but critically, from a very small land area. This area of research received substantial private investment in 2021 of $1.7 billion globally, but to scale as a major food industry it will almost certainly need major government support for the scaling of production facilities.29
Neither perennial crops or fermentation produced protein are considered in Canada's emissions reduction plan.
Oil & Gas - 2019 emissions 191 MT Co2e, 2030 stated target of 110 MT
Current emissions from methane leaks are undoubtedly underestimated, potentially resulting in a current under-reporting of emissions of 50 Mt Co2e per year. This is due to emissions being modelled rather than measured, with actual measurements usually being 50% - 100% greater than modelled figures.30
Canada’s two key policies, a carbon tax and methane leak legislation, are extremely weak when scrutinised, providing limited incentive or enforcement for emissions reductions. Forecast emissions reduction seems very unlikely.
Industry - 2019 emissions 100 MT Co2e, 2030 stated target of 69 MT
Canada is likely to make some small emissions reductions from projects to electrify steel production, currently amounting to a 6 MT Co2e annual emissions reduction.31 However most other industries do not have non emitting processes which they can transition to.32 Worse still Canada is using deliberately biassed carbon accounting choices for logging. Large areas of unlogged forest are included, with Co2 absorbed by these forests offsetting emissions from logging. However emissions from wildfires (which occur naturally) in these same areas are excluded from logging’s carbon accounting, meaning that actual annual emissions of Co2e are almost certainly 80 MT or more than currently reported.33
Buildings - 2019 emissions 91 MT Co2e, 2030 stated target of 53 MT
Heating and cooling accounts for 85% of energy used by Canadian buildings, and there are a large variety of solutions needed to reduce this. While some emissions reductions seem likely to occur, largely driven by phasing out HFC as a refrigerant and the adoption of LED lights, most of the recommended building retrofits such as more insulation, electric heat pumps and smart thermometers are seeing only small adoption rates. In the government's own report it cites the Pembina study, which estimates that Canada needs to spend $21 billion per year from now until 2040 to make the building sector net-zero. The Canadian government is spending $2.6 billion spread over the next seven years, and is relying on the private sector voluntarily investing almost all of the required capital - something it shows no sign of doing.
Additionally Canada’s new model building codes are weak and may have serious conceptual flaws due to how compliance is measured.34 As a result, the forecast 42% emissions reduction seems unlikely.
Waste Management - 2019 emissions 28 MT Co2e, 2030 stated target of 13 MT
The largest source of emissions in this sector is methane leaks from landfills. Current legislation does not force methane capture and flaring at large but now inactive landfills,35 and without such stringent legislation it is hard to see how meaningful emissions reductions will be achieved. The true state of Canada’s waste management is quite shocking. Now that it can no longer export nearly half of its lower grade recycling to Asia,36 provinces have discovered that they do not have ways of recycling many lower grade materials. Waste management is heavily loss-making for provinces and municipalities, and with no federal financial support promised there is little ability to invest in improved infrastructure.
Large Scale Carbon Sequestration Projects - No emissions reductions forecast with this technology
As global trends show only increasing Co2 emissions year on year, it seems wise to start attempting to develop large scale carbon capture technologies which could remove and offset a substantial amount of the world's emissions in the future. These would currently be expensive and radical projects that would require huge government support. There are no such projects currently active globally, and Canada does not appear to have plans to lead the way in developing this technology.
The government claims to be spending $100 billion on climate change. However, when this is spread over its deployment timeframe and low interest loans are stripped out (as they are presumably intended to be repaid), I estimate their annual climate change spending to be between $3.5 - $5.0 billion. I present it as a range as there is controversy over some of the funding support the government has offered heavy industry and oil and gas, with many viewing this as subsidising harmful environmental practices. It is worth pausing to consider that this is substantially less than the annual subsidies that the government gives to root cause climate change activities, such as livestock farming - which has received an average of between $8 - $10 billion per year.37 For context, some estimates place the required annual level of spending needed to reach net zero by 2050 at over $100 billion per year.38
Having researched Canadian climate change policy in depth, it seems apparent to me that there is no realistic prospect of a meaningful reduction on the reported 739 MT of Co2e emitted in 2019. Although Canada may make small reductions in certain specific areas such as electric vehicles, steel production and alternative refrigerants - these reductions are likely to be small in comparison to the underreported emissions occurring from forest fires, wetland drying and methane leaks from oil transportation, which probably represent many hundreds of megatonnes of unreported emissions.
On ecological issues government regulation is extremely weak. Strong lobbying from fisheries, logging, mining, industry and oil and gas invariably manages to alter and distort legislation before enactment - so that little change is ultimately required from industries when new environmental laws are eventually passed.
Climate change has numerous root cause issues, and is inextricably intertwined with ecological and environmental factors. Scientific research increasingly occurs in silos and as a result the holistic effects of biodiversity loss, habitat loss, soil fertility collapse, water depletion and a dramatically warming landmass are not painted as one complete portrait. The combination of the effects seems destined to push our current global food supply chain into disarray, and possible collapse in many regions.
As a wealthy nation with huge carbon stores in the form of vast wetlands, grasslands, forests and coastal waters - one would expect Canada to be in a strong position to act as a custodian to some of the world’s last great areas of wilderness. Instead Canada seems dependent on its extractive industries - and shows that a high standard of living does not on its own create the circumstances for benevolent environmental stewardship.
Clearly political will, environmental awareness and economic ideologies play major roles in preventing stronger environmental legislation and meaningful government funding support. Unless Canadian voters can be convinced that climate change is more severe, more urgent and more dangerous than is usually perceived - then I fail to see how the political will can be summoned to respond to climate change with the sweeping legislative changes and large scale funding commitments so clearly required.
1. “3 billion people could live in places as hot as the Sahara by 2070 unless we tackle climate change”, World Economic Forum, last modified May 13th, 2020, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/temperature-climate-change-greenhouse-gas-niche-emissions-hot/
2. “Temperatures”, Climate Action Tracker, last modified November 9th, 2021, https://climateactiontracker.org/global/temperatures/
3. “3 billion people could live in places as hot as the Sahara by 2070 unless we tackle climate change”, World Economic Forum, last modified May 13th, 2020, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/temperature-climate-change-greenhouse-gas-niche-emissions-hot/
4. Chuang Zhao et al., “Temperature increase reduces global yields of major crops in four independent estimates”, PNAS Vol 114 | No.35, August 15th, 2017, https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1701762114
5. Oliver Milman, “Earth has lost a third of arable land in past 40 years, scientists say”, The Guardian, last modified December 2nd, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/02/arable-land-soil-food-security-shortage
6. Duncan Cameron et al.,“Grantham Centre briefing note: December 2015 A sustainable model for intensive agriculture”, December, 2015, https://grantham.sheffield.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/A-sustainable-model-for-intensive-agriculture-Grantham-Centre-briefing-note-December-2015.pdf
7. “A Map of the Future of Water”, The Pew Charitable Trusts, March 3rd, 2019, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/trend/archive/spring-2019/a-map-of-the-future-of-water
8. Alberto Boretti & Lorenzo Rosa,”Reassessing the projections of the World Water Development Report”, npj Clean Water 2, 15, July 31st, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41545-019-0039-9
9. Alberto Boretti & Lorenzo Rosa,”Reassessing the projections of the World Water Development Report”, npj Clean Water 2, 15, July 31st, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41545-019-0039-9
10. Wetlands Disappearing Three Times Faster than Forests, United Nations Climate Change, last modified October 1st, 2018, https://unfccc.int/news/wetlands-disappearing-three-times-faster-than-forests
11. Environment and Climate Change Canada, “2030 Emissions Reduction Plan”, (Environment and Climate Change Canada, 2022), https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2022/eccc/En4-460-2022-eng.pdf
12. “Buyer Beware: Fossil Fuels Subsidies and Carbon Capture Fairy Tales in Canada”, Environmental Defence, March 2022, P12 https://environmentaldefence.ca/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Buyer-Beware-FFS-in-2021-March-2022.pdf
13. Environment and Climate Change Canada, “2030 Emissions Reduction Plan”, (Environment and Climate Change Canada, 2022), P40, https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2022/eccc/En4-460-2022-eng.pdf
14. “Canada’s Energy Futures 2021 Fact Sheet: Electricity”, last modified May 24th, 2022, https://www.cer-rec.gc.ca/en/data-analysis/canada-energy-future/2021electricity/
15. Battery-mineral shortage likely to impede Canada's goals for electric vehicles, industry expert says”, CBC News, last modified April 28th, 2022, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/sudbury/critical-minerals-supply-canada-1.6433301
16. “Automotive Statistics”, Statistics Canada, last modified July 21st, 2022, https://www.statcan.gc.ca/en/topics-start/automotive
17. Project Drawdown estimates that the world’s wetlands contain 500 - 600 GT of carbon. Canada contains a quarter of the world’s wetlands and boreal soils seem to actually be more carbon rich than tropical wetlands, so taking a quarter of 600 GT as Canada’s carbon store seems reasonable. I then multiplied this by 44/12, which is the relative molecular weight of Co2 vs carbon.
18. “Extent of Canada's wetlands”, Government of Canada, last modified August 31st, 2016, https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/environmental-indicators/extent-wetlands.html
19. Larry Kaumeyer, “What’s Happening To Canada’s Vanishing Wetlands?”,Ducks, last modified January 26th, https://www.ducks.ca/stories/wetlands/whats-happening-to-canadas-vanishing-wetlands/
20. Gretchen Vogel, “Where have all the insects gone?”, Science, last modified May 10th, 2017, https://www.science.org/content/article/where-have-all-insects-gone
21. Dr. Silke Nebel, “A Roadmap To Rescue Aerial Insectivores”, Birds Canada, last modified June 26th, 2020, https://www.birdscanada.org/a-roadmap-to-rescuing-aerial-insectivores
22. “Introduction - Prairies”, Government of Canada, last modified November 13th, 2015, https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/changements-climatiques/impacts-adaptation/introduction-prairies/10381
23. Oliver Milman, “Earth has lost a third of arable land in past 40 years, scientists say”, The Guardian, last modified December 2nd, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/02/arable-land-soil-food-security-shortage
24. The research paper “Restoring Abandoned Farmland to Mitigate Climate Change on a Full Earth” estimates that the USA has lost 38.1 - 48.1 million hectares between 1980 and 2016. US cropland is currently estimated at approximately 103 million hectares per this source (https://www.statista.com/statistics/201762/projection-for-total-us-cropland-area-from-2010/)
25. “Agricultural irrigation patterns in Canada from 2012 to 2018”, Statistics Canada, last modified July 23rd, 2021, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/16-508-x/16-508-x2021001-eng.htm
26. “Taxpayers oblivious to the cost of farm subsidies”, The Globe And Mail, last modified July 7th, 2013, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/taxpayers-oblivious-to-the-cost-of-farm-subsidies/article13055078/
27. “Taxpayers oblivious to the cost of farm subsidies”, The Globe And Mail, last modified July 7th, 2013, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/taxpayers-oblivious-to-the-cost-of-farm-subsidies/article13055078/
28. “Federal Election 2021: Ag Platforms of the Major Parties”, National Farmers Union, last modified September 1st, 2021, https://www.nfu.ca/federal-election-2021-ag-platforms-of-the-major-parties/
29. “Fermentation: Meat, Seafood, Eggs and Dairy”, Good Food Institute, accessed September 14th, 2022, P56, https://gfi.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/04/2021-Fermentation-State-of-the-Industry-Report.pdf
30. “Canada's methane emissions are likely undercounted, and that makes them harder to cut”, CBC News, last modified April 15th, 2021, https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/methane-emissions-undercounted-1.5987246
31. “Greening steel looms as a 30-year challenge”, Daily Commercial News, last modified September 24th, 2021, https://canada.constructconnect.com/dcn/news/resource/2021/09/greening-steel-looms-as-a-30-year-challenge
32. “How to transform Canada’s heavy industry into a net-zero powerhouse”, Corporate Knights, last modified January 14th, 2022, https://www.corporateknights.com/energy/how-to-transform-canadas-heavy-industry-into-a-net-zero-powerhouse/
33. “MISSING THE FOREST: HOW CARBON LOOPHOLES FOR LOGGING HINDER CANADA'S CLIMATE LEADERSHIP”, Environment Defence, 2021, P13, https://environmentaldefence.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Missing-the-Forest-Oct-2021.pdf
34. “2020NBC amendments represent a lost opportunity for Canada”, Daily Commercial News, last modified March 25th, 2022, https://canada.constructconnect.com/dcn/news/government/2022/03/2020nbc-amendments-represent-a-lost-opportunity-for-canada
35. “Reducing methane emissions from Canada’s municipal solid waste landfills: discussion paper”, Government of Canada, last modified January 28th, 2022,
36. “Is Canada’s recycling industry broken?”, Global News, last modified May 28th, 2019, https://globalnews.ca/news/5199883/canada-recycling-programs/
37. “Taxpayers oblivious to the cost of farm subsidies”, The Globe And Mail, last modified July 7th, 2013, https://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/taxpayers-oblivious-to-the-cost-of-farm-subsidies/article13055078/
38. “Canada needs $100B more annually to reach net-zero goal: Budget 2022”, Global News, last modified April 7th, 2022, https://globalnews.ca/news/8743093/environment-investments-needed-net-zero-budget-2022/