Freshly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is leading a team of provincial leaders at the United Nations Conference of the Parties, or COP21, climate summit in Paris which would have been radically different if the meeting had been held six months ago.
In the past half-year, Alberta -- home to the controversial Athabasca oil sands and Canada's largest energy-producing province -- and Canadians as a nation have elected governments bent on burnishing the country's environmental credentials. In the run-up to COP21, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley vowed to curb greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 by shuttering the province's giant coal-fired electricity generators and replacing them with less-polluting power sources. Notley's socialist New Democratic Party was elected May 5 in an upset victory that saw the ouster of the province's right-leaning Progressive Conservatives after more than four decades. On Oct. 19, Trudeau's Liberal Party pushed out the federal Conservatives, who under leader Stephen Harper pulled the nation out of its commitment under the 1997 Kyoto Accords.
Both Conservative governments had lobbied hard for pipelines that would carry tar-like bitumen from the oil sands in northeastern Alberta to ports where it could be exported to countries other than the U.S., where a glut of domestic supply has depressed prices. The change in political climate became obvious in November, when President Barack Obama rejected TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL pipeline -- the seven-year quest to build the conduit ended with a shrug instead of a shout from Canadian political leaders. It was a not-unexpected outcome, the head of one of the world's biggest energy lobbies said Nov. 25 in Calgary, Alberta.
"As we all know this decision is about political positioning on the eve of the COP21 meeting in Paris," Marie-José Nadeau, chair of the World Energy Council, said at the Energy Council of Canada, or ECC, gala in honor of the Canadian Energy Person of the Year. "Nevertheless, this outcome has triggered what Premier Notley has referred to as a wake-up call when she unveiled Alberta's strategy to curb the carbon trajectory within the next 15 years."
Nadeau told energy executives who gathered at the hub of Canada's oil industry to dine on wild arugula and roast elk loin that climate change regulation ranks almost on par with energy prices as a concern among members of her organization. Michael Cleland, the former head of the Canadian Gas Association who was named the ECC's energy person of the year, was blunt about the severity of the emission cuts being proposed and their impact on the energy industry. The debate over the direction of the energy industry, once led by consumer demand for products, is now being informed by citizen demand for ecological responsibility, he said, creating a challenge for fossil-fuel industries.
"If we eliminated all emissions from all oil and gas production, we would still fall well short of the commitments we've already put out for Paris of 30% below current levels by 2030, which many people regard as woefully inadequate," Cleland said.
Canada's news headlines have been dominated in the run-up to COP21 by pronouncements from provinces promoting their environmental programs. Alberta's energy and environment ministers appeared Nov. 30 with energy industry executives and the head of the province's power grid operator, pledging the province would derive 30% of its power from renewables by 2030. On Nov. 24, the Ontario government unveiled its climate strategy, reiterating its plan to enter a cap-and-trade emission scheme with Quebec and California and promising to release a five-year action plan in 2016.
Even Saskatchewan, where the last right-leaning government in Canada's energy-producing region has sought to extend the life of the coal-fired generators of province-owned SaskPower through carbon capture and storage, on Nov. 24 revealed plans to get 50% of its electricity from renewables by 2030. The change in climate policy plans from just a few months ago has been welcomed by environmental and renewable energy groups.
"It seems like there is definitely a renewed sense of hope and possibility within Canada," Mike Hudema, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, said in a Dec. 1 interview. "I just came from a massive rally of over 25,000 people in the nation's capital that was held on Saturday [Nov. 28] and you could definitely feel that in the air. But of course, that hope really needs [to] translate into some bold action which is demanded by the science for Canada to do its part to combat climate change."
Alberta is Canada's biggest user of coal-fired generation, owing to massive deposits of the mineral near the surface which can be easily mined by scraping back dirt and moving coal by conveyor belts to power plants. Under federal rules introduced by Canada's government in 2012 only a few plants would have been running after 2030, but carbon taxes and intensity rules introduced by the Notley government have prompted two of the largest coal-burning companies to pivot from planned natural gas-fired replacement generation to hydroelectricity, a power source that had previously been neglected because of high costs and the difficulty in getting projects approved.
ATCO Ltd., owner of the Battle River and Sheerness coal plants, which produce a combined 1,079 MW, has proposed two plants that could produce as much as 1,700 MW from the Athabasca River near the heart of the oil sands region in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Athabasca River-I and Athabasca River-II would cost as much as C$4.35 billion to build and ATCO has said in the past it needs regulatory certainty to proceed with the projects. ATCO executive Wayne Stensby told Bloomberg News on Nov. 29 the company is considering moving forward with a large-scale project. TransAlta Corp., another large coal-fired power producer, is considering a shift to hydro with as much as 700 MW of expansion under consideration, CEO Dawn Farrell said Oct. 30. The announcement came less than a year after the company abandoned its proposed Dunvegan hydro project because of regulatory hurdles.
While hydro and other renewables are being touted in Alberta, Ontario has already eliminated coal-fired generation and is moving forward with plans to reduce carbon output from non-generation sources, such as buildings and cars. Under Premier Kathleen Wynne, Canada's most-populous province has set out aggressive targets to curb pollution in its climate change strategy, released just before the COP21 talks.
"Today, Ontario solidified its commitment to being a climate leader," Merran Smith, director of Clean Energy Canada, said in an email after the Nov. 24 announcement. "This strategy will support clean technology innovation and entrepreneurship, reduce carbon pollution from buildings, industry and other sectors, and expand the market for electric vehicles and clean energy technologies."
While Canada has made progress on climate change policy in a short time and appears to be moving in the right direction, concrete plans need to be set for emissions reductions, Greenpeace's Hudema said.
"Canada is coming into this conference [COP21] without really setting any targets of its own beyond the targets that were set under the Harper government and without a real plan of how to meet them," Hudema said. "Even with Alberta's announcements, emissions won't actually drop, and so how is the country going to reach 30% reductions previously announced by the Harper government, or the potentially even-bolder reductions that the Trudeau government will announce? That remains to be seen and of course is the prime minister's bigger test."