What next for Canada??

This week I have been in Canada, talking with people in both Provincial and Federal government about Canada’s policy plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There is a feeling of deja vu doing this, because it seems that Canada has been talking about such policy for years now – but almost nothing substantive has been implemented.

But now very substantive action is going to be needed – and needed fast. Its largest tading partner is on the move and will implement either an emissions trading system or succumb to the rigours of the Clean Air Act. As a developed country in a leadership position with G8 status, Canada will almost certainly have to sign up to something like a 20% reduction in emissions (or more) from 2005 to 2020 when it faces other nations across the negotiating table in Copenhagen.

But Canada has been here before, signing up to the Kyoto Protocol and agreeing to reduce emissions by 6% from their 1990 level of about 600 million tones. In 2006 GHG emissions were at 721 million tonnes, nearly 30% above the Kyoto target. However, emissions have fallen from a high of 743 million tonnes in 2004, perhaps driven by a variety of policy efforts at provincial level and some from the Feds.

Putting to one side the issue of how Canada will finesse complance with its Kyoto obligations (and these are real obligations irrespective of what happens to the Protocol), a formidable task remains to reduce emissions between now and 2020 (remember, that’s 4000 days). This is all the more challenging for Canada because the resources boom in Alberta is also putting upward pressure on emissions.

Getting back to my mission this week, it is clear that the political appetite for action has changed and that a cap-and-trade system is now the preferred way forward. But there are many hurdles to cross. Whatever is put in place has to be compatible with the expected US system. Waxman-Markey allows unrestricted flow of allowances from “equivalent systems”, but therein lies the first issue – what will be deemed equivalent. Whilst the idea of a trading approach is alive and well in Canada, so too is the idea of a buy-out option by putting money in the collection tin (the “Technology Fund”). Unfortunately this means it isn’t a cap-and-trade system any longer and it is hard to imagine any such construction being deemed equivalent.

Two other obstacles confront Canada in the design of a national trading system.

The first involves the concerns that wealth transfer may result between provinces arising from the flow of allowances between those needing to buy allowances due to substantial growth from those with a flatter emissions profile. This is a real issue, but it has been addressed in the EU and the approach adopted there may be applicable in Canada. In the EU a large New Entrant Reserve has been set aside from within the cap. Member states can draw on this as necessary, using the allowances for auction or grant to the new facilities in question. This helps countries like Poland experiencing rapid growth in that it limits the flow of funds leaving the country for compliance pruposes.

The second issue is also a wealth transfer one, but between Canada and the rest of the world. It is almost certain that Canada will have to buy international offsets or US / EU allowances to meet a potential 20% by 2020 reduction target. With the resources boom in Alberta, the best that Canada can probably achieve domestically is a 10% reduction by 2020. This means Canada / Canadian industry could need to purchase some 250 million tonnes of external compliance units between 2013 and 2020, perhaps costing as much as $10 billion. There really is no getting around this – it is the nature of an emissions trading approach built on environmental targets and strict compliance. It is also because there is no getting around the issue of climate change other than reducing emissions – the atmosphere doesn’t really have much use for our money, only our ability to manage what we emit to it.

So there is much to do to push Canada across the line and get cap-and-trade implemented. But there is also a great deal of willingness and drive to finally make something happen – hopefully enough to overcome some tricky obstacles along the way.