UN climate regime should concern, if not alarm, all Canadians: Opinion

Implications of UN’s new climate regime should concern, if not even alarm, all Canadians

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By Tammy Nemeth and Ron Wallace

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Integrity Matters, a report from the UN high-level expert group chaired by former Canadian environment minister Catherine McKenna, was launched at COP27 last week. Down here at the lower levels, we think its implications should concern, if not even alarm, all Canadians.

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So far Canada’s various climate plans and agreements have set emissions targets that balance the production of greenhouse gases against removals from the atmosphere, whether by tree-planting, sequestration or other means. The current plan is that by 2030 we will reduce our net emissions by 40-45 percent from what they were in 2005. But now McKenna’s report is pushing hard, not for offsets, but for absolute reductions in GHG emissions — in other words, for taking much of the “net” out of “net -zero.”

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If the report’s recommendations are accepted, company boards and executives will have to pledge agreement with the Paris Agreement deep-decarbonization pathway and publish five-year plans for reducing absolute emissions “along the entire value chain.” This includes “embedded emissions within fossil fuel reserves” with prioritization of “urgent and deep reductions of (absolute) emissions” rather than the use of carbon credits. Detailed company progress reports would have to be filed with a global, public database for “emission reduction verification.” The clear implication is that hydrocarbon producers, while coping with reduced investment, would now have to account for and capture emissions not just from the production but also from the combustion of their products — a tall order indeed.

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The report summarizes its absolutist dogma in this way: “Non‑state actors cannot claim to be net-zero while continuing to build or invest in new fossil fuel supply … Net-zero is entirely incompatible with continued investment in fossil fuels … there is no room for new investment in fossil fuel supply and a need to decommission existing assets.” Get that, Alberta?

The heart of the report is its recommendation for the “phasing out of fossil fuels and scaling up renewable energy,” with detailed provisions for businesses, financial institutions, cities and regions on how to end all hydrocarbon production by 2050: “for businesses: on oil and gas, end (i) exploration for new oil and gas fields, (ii) expansion of oil and gas reserves, and (iii) oil and gas production.”

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The report’s tenth recommendation, “accelerating the road to regulation,” would compel companies to act not only from government policy dictates per se, but directly through the regulatory and financial disclosure systems with the aim that: “Non-state actors must align their external policy and engagement efforts, including membership in trade associations, to the goal of reducing global emissions by at least 50 percent by 2030 and reaching net-zero by 2050. This means lobbying for positive climate action and not lobbying against it.”

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Let that sink in. Not only would the UN’s new climate regime disallow new investments in fossil fuels and end production of oil and gas, it would also compel an uncritical allegiance to the green transition by the very companies it proposes to put out of business. This is despite the fact that, as the Parliamentary Budget Office recently wrote, “Canada’s own emissions are not large enough to materially impact climate change.”

Canadians need to think carefully before agreeing to adoption of the McKenna group’s report. It ignores important unintended consequences that would inevitably affect our economy and energy security. This attempt to redefine the “net” out of “net-zero” undermines Canada’s established “transitional” net-zero policies and would require elimination of all hydrocarbon production and use by 2050 — while apparently foreclosing consideration of managing offsets with carbon credits or carbon capture, utilization and storage.

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Such a redefinition of net-zero places the high-level expert group at odds, not just with a global community that increasingly recognizes the strategic and economic importance of hydrocarbon use, but also with current Canadian climate policy. Significantly, the COP27 final agreement did not contain language that called for the phase-out of all fossil fuels, including oil and gas. To quote Alok Sharma, the British MP who served as president of COP26 in Glasgow: “A clear commitment to phase-out all fossil fuels? Not in this text.”

A report that is at odds not just with Canada and the international community but also with the COP27 final agreement itself should be sent back to the UN with a failing grade.

Tammy Nemeth is a UK-based strategic energy analyst. Ron Wallace is an executive fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and the Canada West Foundation.

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