As U.S. adopts new federal climate policy, will Canada follow?

As the Obama administration announced the most significant step ever taken by an American President to implement the first-ever federal limits on dangerous carbon pollution reduction from coal-fired power plants, questions continue to linger about when Canada will address its fastest growing source of carbon pollution from the tar sands industry. The Obama administration after a lengthy consultation period has announced it would begin implementation of the Clean Power Plan which aims for a 32 percent reduction from power plants by 2030 compared to 2005 levels. This will prevent nearly 900 million tons of carbon pollution into the atmosphere annually by 2030. As the U.S. moves ahead to address its largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, there remains no federal strategy in Canada the country's oil and gas sector (which includes tar sands). With a federal election looming in Canada, the debate over the lack of federal climate plan will likely grow. On the one hand, there have been ambitious plans announced by some Canadian provinces such as Quebec and Ontario. But unfortunately, Alberta's rising tar sands emissions are responsible for the lion's share (approximately 67 percent) of Canada's increasing carbon pollution since 1990. This has made the need for a federal Canadian climate policy even more important.

"We can't condemn our kids and grandkids to a planet that's beyond fixing. Climate change is not a problem for another generation. Not anymore." - President Obama in a video announcing the Clean Power Plan

About the Clean Power Plan: Action can start immediately

As NRDC President Rhea Suh and Program Director Susan Casey-Lefkowitz have outlined the Clean Power Plan is a federal system that is designed to achieve national carbon pollution reductions through individual state plans. Each state will devise a plan to phase in pollution cuts. To achieve carbon pollution reductions, state will be offered incentives to use more renewable energy and adopt energy efficiency programs.

State implementation can start right away. Under the Clean Power Plan, states have the opportunity to assume leadership and to devise their own implementation plans. These plans are due in roughly one year. Dozens of states already have demand-side efficiency programs, renewable portfolio standards, market-based greenhouse gas reduction programs.

Will attacks to derail the Clean Power Plan succeed? Not likely. The fossil fuel industry and its allies were quick out of the box with legal challenges and we can expect challenges in Congress in the days to come. But President Obama will veto any Congressional attempt to block the new standards that manages to make it to his desk. And the rules are on strong legal ground. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that carbon is a pollutant that is subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act.

The Imperative for International Climate Leadership from the U.S. and Canada

This historic announcement put the U.S. in a strong position to meet its international climate targets in time to attend the 2015 Paris climate negotiations . U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have already fallen 6.5 per cent below 2005 levels. Meanwhile, Canada emissions are projected to increase from 2005 levels by 8 percent by 2030 unless new measures are taken. For the U.S., the need has long been to address the major source of coal-fired power plants which account for roughly 40 percent of the U.S. national carbon footprint. The Clean Power Plan is part of President Obama's Climate Action plan - which includes several other ambitious initiatives to reduce emissions, including historic investments to deploy clean energy technologies, standards to double the fuel economy of cars and light trucks, and steps to reduce methane pollution.

For Canada to meet its international obligations, it will need to make a choice about what kind of national energy development it pursues. According to Environmental Defence Canada and Greenpeace Canada, "....continuing to expand tar sands production makes it virtually impossible for Canada to meet even weak carbon reduction targets or show climate leadership." The single greatest action that Canada can take to address climate change is stopping tar sand expansion. According to a recently issued paper by Environmental Defence Canada and Greenpeace Canada:

if tar sands production is allowed to expand as forecast by the industry and the Canadian government, then in 2020 pollution levels in Alberta-- with 11 per cent of Canada's population--will be approaching pollution levels in the three biggest provinces combined: Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia--which together have 75 per cent of the population.

Americans are strongly in favor of federal regulation of carbon from power plants. Canadians also want leadership on climate protection. As Canada nears its federal election, a strong majority of Canadians (60 percent) indicated that a federal promise to legally enforce a cap or limit on carbon pollution was important or very important. In fact, 61 percent of Canadians say protecting the climate is more important than pipelines and continuing to develop tar sands according to Climate Action Network Canada.

There is good reason for Canada to join the U.S. in going after carbon pollution. But for Canada, ongoing expansion of the tar sands sector will need to be addressed for national and international leadership on climate progress. Should this happen, Canada and the U.S. can go to the Paris international negotiations together demonstrating how two of the top 10 emitters in the world can make a difference.