Canada's new energy strategy reveals irreconcilable rifts in aspirations on climate and tar sands

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Following a week of negotiations, Canada's provincial and territorial premiers have released a 'unified Canadian Energy Strategy' which reveals sharp divisions in the country's aspirations. The negotiations surrounding the Canadian Energy Strategy - which was originally pitched by Alberta's premier in 2012 as a means of supporting new tar sands expansion infrastructure - focused on using the document as a possible vehicle to obtain a national agreement on addressing climate change. Unfortunately, the strategy as released reflects an incompatible and unworkable hybrid, promoting the expansion of high carbon tar sands infrastructure and the need to decarbonize Canada's economy. The problem with this approach is that Alberta's expanding tar sands sector happens to be the reason that Canada is the only developed nation that is expected to miss its international climate targets. The new Canadian Energy Strategy's 'split the baby approach' reveals an irreconcilable disconnect between the Confederation's aspirations to be a strong actor on climate and its commitment to expanding high carbon tar sands development.

In its strategy, Canadian premiers agreed "to actively pursue greenhouse gas emissions reductions with targets based on sound science." (CES, page 17) This call comes after over one hundred prominent scientists throughout North America called for a moratorium on tar sands expansion and related infrastructure in order to prevent irreparable harm to the climate. They have reason to be concerned, as Canada is expected to miss its 2020 Copenhagen obligations by a substantial margin - primarily due to increased tar sands expansion (see Figure 1). Looking ahead, Canada is on a path to increasing emissions through 2030, due largely to the expansion of its tar sands industry.

It is clear that Canada's expanding tar sands sector is at the root of its failure to constrain its carbon emissions. This is why it's still troubling to see that the Canadian Energy Strategy also calls from the development of sufficient pipelines to accommodate growing domestic and international energy demands as production expands (CES, page 26). Expanding tar sands production has led to Canada's failure to meet its climate commitments and has taken the country off course from a climate policy based on science.

The strategy's emphasis on promoting market diversification is also a missed opportunity. Rather than focusing on clean energies that are consistent with Canada's climate aspirations, the strategy relies on Canada's full range of energy products available for export. In short, it means Canada will continue to pursue an aggressive emphasis its carbon intensive tar sands sector for export. This undermines the real opportunity that Canada has to focus and emphasize on the non-emitting sources of energy that would put it back into a position of climate leadership. For this reason, we think the goal and actions around marketing diversification is weak.

For Canada to regain its credibility on the international stage on climate, it will have to come to grips with its tar sands problem. Canada's new energy strategy recognizes both the need to reduce the country's rising emissions and the substantial role that clean energy can play both in promoting climate goals and in fostering economic growth. However, this strategy makes it all too clear that the Canadian confederation has not yet come to grips with the fact that it cannot make the absolute emissions reductions necessary to honor its climate commitments while actively promoting the expansion of high carbon tar sands.