The United Nations’ 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow wrapped up last week with commitments that, if fulfilled, could hold global warming to below the critical 2C threshold, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Of the commitments made at COP26, the most significant include pledges to phase out coal power and reduce methane emissions 30% by 2030.
Former BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, a climate scientist who has contributed to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments, said he questions the IEA’s projections that pledges announced at COP26 could hold global warming to 1.8 C, but nonetheless said he was encouraged by this year’s conference.
“This is the first time I have actually felt optimistic from a COP,” Weaver said. “Historically COPs come and go and nothing happens. But there really seemed to be a different sense of urgency in this COP by the leaders, and Canada actually played a very positive role in this COP. Canada’s plan now, especially since Jonathan Wilkinson put it forward in 2020, is really one of the best out there.”
Jock Finlayson, senior policy adviser for the Business Council of BC (BCBC), warns that all the commitments to decarbonize the economy coming out of COP26 will come with a price tag.
“People are upset about what’s happened to energy prices and inflation and the cost of living just in the last year, but we haven’t seen anything yet,” Finlayson said. “We’re going to be seeing astronomical increases in the cost of energy, if our governments are actually serious about getting emissions down dramatically in very brief timespans.”
The COP26 conference achieved some critical commitments, including 40 countries agreeing to phase out coal power – though those pledges occurred during an energy crisis that has underscored just how stubborn coal can be. The burning of coal has skyrocketed in China, Europe and other parts of the world, thanks to economic recovery, a shortage of natural gas and liquefied natural gas (LNG), and a sudden decline in wind power in Europe.
It’s generally accepted that the single most important climate action measure is phasing out the use of coal for generating power. The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged to not only to phase out the domestic use of coal to produce power by 2030, but to also ban thermal coal exports.
Canada produces little thermal coal for export. Most coal from Canadian mines is metallurgical, which is used to make steel. Most thermal coal exported from Canada originates in the U.S., and most of it moves through B.C. ports: Vancouver and Prince Rupert. So the biggest losers, in terms of economic impacts, from a ban on thermal coal exports will be Canadian railways, ports and terminal operators in B.C.: Ridley Terminal in Prince Rupert and Westshore Terminals in Delta.
On average, about one-third of the coal moved through the Port of Vancouver is thermal coal; its two biggest destinations are South Korea and Japan. Thermal coal still makes up a significant amount of Westshore Terminals’ revenue, which was $250 million for the first nine months of 2021.
In some areas, the Trudeau government’s climate action commitments exceed the targets agreed to by other nations, including a pledge to reduce methane emissions in the oil and gas sector 75% by 2030. Other countries have pledged a 30% reduction by 2030.
The Trudeau government also announced it will cap emissions from the oil and gas sector. In a call with reporters from Glasgow, Canada’s new Environment Minister, Steven Guilbeault, was asked if the cap would mean a freeze on any new LNG development in B.C.
“I guess the first question is what do we mean by current level?” Guilbeault answered. “That is a question we are going to have to answer very quickly, but we haven’t defined the methodology, the pathway, by which we would be implementing this cap.”
While a cap on emissions might suggest a freeze on all oil, natural gas and LNG production in Canada at current levels, that’s not necessarily the case, said Mark Jaccard, a Simon Fraser University sustainable energy economist and a lead author on an upcoming IPCC Working Group 3 assessment.
“A cap on emissions is not a cap on production,” he said. “We already know now, technologically, that we can produce oilsands with zero emissions. You capture the carbon, you bury it.
“Likewise, all of the things we need to frack and process natural gas and then to transport it, refrigerate it to make it into a liquid – all of that can be zero-emission as well. You can use electricity, you can use biogas, you can use waste heat. We know you can do that, and the question will be what is the cost and what is the rest of the planet doing?”
Capping oil and gas emissions and then whittling them down to zero by 2050 will require a massive investment in carbon capture and storage – something that could be a major boon for B.C. companies in the realm of carbon capture and storage, such as Inventys and Carbon Engineering.
As for B.C. and its ambition to become a significant LNG exporter, it has the advantage of natural gas that already has some of the lowest CO2 and methane intensities in North America.
“If we can get to a world where we have global carbon tariffs, and we’re forcing decarbonization to happen everywhere, then it could well be that there’s still an expansion of natural gas exports from British Columbia, but that the natural gas production, transportation and refrigeration industry in Canada for exports will be zero-emission,” Jaccard said. “And it will also mean zero emission for selling natural gas within B.C.”
Speaking at COP26, former U.S. president Barack Obama pointed to the conspicuous absence of the leaders of China and Russia, and to a “dangerous lack of urgency” in those countries’ commitments to decarbonization.
But even when a political leader does step up and make commitments, his or her successor can turn around and scrap them at the next COP conference.
“An international negotiation process that gets excited about national commitments is based on the naive view that each country will elect a like-minded political leader to the one who made the commitment for the next 30 straight years,” Jaccard said.
He said some mechanism is needed to address the problem of climate change free-riders and laggards. One such mechanism is a carbon border adjustment tariff, like the one the European Union has proposed. It would apply to imports from countries that don’t price carbon or which otherwise are failing to take domestic action on climate change.
“What we should be working on are carbon tariffs, carbon money transfer mechanisms,” Jaccard said. “My advice to Canadian politicians has been: link up with the EU, try to pull the U.S. into some kind of tariff.” •