Canada lags the United States on climate and clean energy

As world leaders meet in New York for the United Nations Climate Summit next week, it is becoming all too clear how the paths taken by Canada and the United States have diverged in recent years. A backgrounder released by NRDC and Environmental Defense Canada compares the countries recent record on both climate and clean energy. While the United States has taken significant steps to become a credible actor on climate action while Canada is becoming known internationally for its climate inaction. As part of the 2009 Copenhagen agreement, both the United States and Canada agreed to reduce their carbon emissions by 17 per cent by 2020. Since then, the United States has made significant progress towards meeting its climate targets and has a clear strategy to meet its climate commitments by 2020 and accelerate its transition to clean energy. In contrast, the Canadian government has done little to curb its increasing climate emissions and is on track to substantially miss its Copenhagen commitments, due in a large part to its support for unchecked expansion of tar sands production. Communities on both sides of the border look to their leaders to take meaningful and aggressive action to reduce carbon emissions for the sake of our shared climate. Unfortunately, Canada's government has badly tarnished the nation's image as a credible international actor on climate. 

The United States has created a credible roadmap for meeting – and possibly exceeding – it’s 17 percent carbon reduction target by 2020. The roadmap – known as the Climate Action Plan – proposes policies that would reduce annual U.S. carbon emissions by up to a billion metric tons by 2020. The Administration is in the process of implementing the plan, which includes carbon pollution standards for power plants, efficiency standards, and reductions in hydroflurcarbon and methane emissions.

The centerpiece of President Obama’s Climate Action plan is its proposal to set limits on carbon pollution from the United State’s largest source of carbon emissions – its fleet of fossil fuel fired power plants. Its new carbon standards would reduce annual carbon emission in the U.S. power sector by 550 million metric tons – equivalent to the emissions of 144 coal fired power plants.

Canada has a different story to tell. After agreeing to the same targets, the Canadian federal government has done nothing to honor them and has no plan to do so in the future. Its own forecasts predict it will miss its emissions targets by a margin greater than all the carbon produced by all of the country’s power plants. In absence of climate leadership by the Canadian government, many provinces are working together to advance climate policies. But rising emissions from the tar sands will cancel out provinces’ reduction efforts.

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For six years and under four different environment ministers, the Canadian government has promised regulations to address carbon emissions from the oil and gas sector, including the tar sands. The Canadian government still doesn’t have a single regulation to limit those emissions, and they are set to skyrocket over the coming years and decades.


In addition to its failure to regulate emissions from tar sands production, the Canadian government has aggressively promoted unchecked tar sands expansion. Canada has dramatically reduced its support for climate research, ceased all major federal programs to support renewable energy development, gutted decades’ worth of environmental legislation at the behest of the oil industry, muzzled government scientists from speaking on climate change, and continued significant subsidies to the oil and gas sector.

In light of the Canadian government’s complete inaction on climate, its multimillion dollar advertising campaign in the United States pitching its climate commitments as a rationale for the approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline appears particularly hypocritical. Yes, Canada and the United States have the made the same climate commitments, but it’s now crystal clear that only the United States intends to honor them.

Clean Energy Investments: Canada falls further behind

Investing in clean, safe, modern renewable energy is critical for addressing climate change. In this area too, the United States is actively engaged in efforts to accelerate the transition to more sustainable sources of energy as Canada falls farther behind.

Since 2008, the United States has doubled renewable generation from wind and solar sources, helping to develop nearly 50,000 new clean energy projects that are supporting jobs throughout the country. The United States is now home to the largest wind and solar farms in the world.

The Administration has set a goal to double renewable electricity generation from wind and solar again by 2020. The United States has set the stage to enter coming international climate negotiations as a credible actor.  

Meanwhile, Canadian investment in clean energy has lagged that in the United States substantially. Last year, the U.S. government per capita investment in clean energy was 2.4 times Canada’s. Over 80 per cent of Canada’s investment in clean energy came from programs that are now closed, shrinking the Canadian government’s future investments in clean energy significantly. Without the grants, subsidies, and R&D funding, both the private sector and individuals have fewer incentives to invest in cleaning up our energy system. By failing to invest in clean technology, Canada is failing to invest in the solutions we need to create economic opportunities in clean energy.

In the coming climate negotiations (now scheduled for late 2015), industrialized nations such as Canada and the United States will be expected to lead the international community by making greater carbon pollution reductions after 2020. The United States is positioning itself to take on additional climate reductions. Canada will enter these negotiations as a climate laggard, with little prospect of honoring its 2020 commitments and on a trajectory of increasing emissions through at least 2030.


About the Authors

Anthony Swift

Director, Canada Project, International program

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