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Alberta's New Climate Plan Is Historic, But It's Not Enough

11/23/2015 09:00 EST | Updated 11/23/2016 05:12 EST
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The Government of Alberta just announced a new climate change strategy for the province. You can read the entire plan here, but for a province that a few years ago was begrudgingly admitting the existence of climate change, this is historic. At the same time, it's also nowhere close to enough.

Here's why this is historic:

Alberta just leapfrogged Justin Trudeau on climate change.

Right now, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is still planning to show up in Paris with the plan Canada developed under Stephen Harper. This move by Alberta is a clear sign that Canada, even in the heart of the oil industry, is ready for bold climate action. Trudeau and his Ministers should take this nod and put forward a plan that goes even further than Alberta and does what the science says we need to do: freeze tar sands expansion, scrap unnecessary pipeline projects and come up with a deliberate plan that keeps tar sands in the ground and builds a justice-based clean energy economy.

This announcement means that some tar sands will have to stay in the ground

Rachel Notley might not have said it directly, but this announcement makes one thing clear -- the government of Alberta recognizes that action on climate change means leaving some tar sands in the ground. We know that the science says that at least 85 per cent of it will need to be left in the ground, and we that this could mean that approved tar sands projects could never break ground. But, we also know that politics, the influence of the fossil fuel industry interference, the possibility of a change in government in Alberta, or any number of other forces are going to be pushing for this cap to be as weak as possible. This announcement is huge, but whether it leads to the kind of limits on extraction we need remains to be seen.

With that being said, what this definitely means is politically, beyond a shadow of a doubt, tar sands are on track to become stranded assets. Investors, especially Canadian universities like the University of Toronto and University of British Columbia who on the verge of making announcements about their investment plans, should take note because divesting from fossil fuels makes even more sense now than it already did.

New pipelines make even less sense now

Without this cap there were already serious questions about the long term need for new pipeline capacity. With the cap, that question just got a new variable. If tar sands expansion is limited, there is even less of in impetus for building new pipelines like Energy East and Kinder Morgan. Now, more than ever, we need a rigorous review of pipelines that includes considering the emissions facilitated by these projects. Alberta's announcement makes the federal government's decision to move forward with the reviews of Energy East and Kinder Morgan without these considerations even more ridiculous.

While this is a great first step, what we need is federal leadership to keep fossil fuels in the ground, similar to the Keep it in the Ground Act proposed by U.S. lawmakers a few weeks ago.

Here's why it's nowhere near enough:

An emissions cap and keeping it in the ground are not the same thing.

A cap on emissions in Alberta will probably keep some tar sands in the ground, but alone it won't be enough to do what we know is necessary. The science says that keeping at least 85 per cent of tar sands in the ground will keep Canada in line with a 2ºC, and if that's the goal, then that also needs to be the policy we're striving for. While this is a great first step, what we need is federal leadership to keep fossil fuels in the ground, similar to the Keep it in the Ground Act proposed by U.S. lawmakers a few weeks ago.

We also have to be vigilant with this new policy. An emissions cap opens a wide door to be undermined and co-opted by the fossil fuel industry. We know that climate policy in Alberta has been notoriously susceptible to manipulation by big oil, and that big oil has been able to undermine emissions targets time and time again around the globe. Whether it's by creating loopholes, promising unproven techno-fixes or other dirty tricks, there is no shortage of ways for this emissions cap to become a paper promise.

Emissions targets were the kind of policy that we needed in the tar sands a decade ago, but today the measure of climate leadership isn't a target for what you won't put in the air -- it's legislation that listen to the science and keeps fossil fuels in the ground.

The governments of Canada and Alberta will use this announcement to stand with the fossil fuel industry, not as a tool to stand up to them

This announcement has been heavily foreshadowed by promises from the federal and provincial governments to use climate policy as a selling point to expand fossil fuel development in Canada. Both Justin Trudeau and Rachel Notley have lamented on how a climate action could have helped them win approval of the Keystone XL, and they're depending on this announcement to help them with other pipelines.

This should be a huge red flag for anyone concerned about climate change. At a time when we know that there is an unwavering moral, scientific and economic imperative to leave the majority of fossil fuels in the ground, governments need to be choosing the side of people and real action, not using climate policy to protect polluter interests.

It's important to remember who we're dealing with and what we're up against when it comes to tackling climate change. While there may be those in the fossil fuel industry who are frustrated by this announcement from Alberta, this policy would never have been proposed without strong support from some of the world's biggest fossil fuel companies. These are the same companies that have used every trick in the book to stand in the way of bold climate action, including outright lying to and misleading the public on the very existence of this crisis. Maybe I'm just too cynical, but while I would love to believe that big oil has learned their lesson and thrown in the towel on fossil fuels, believing that would be ridiculously naive.

There are still a lot of questions about how this announcement will play out on the ground. Particularly, how Alberta will square their climate policy with their commitment to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. What we do know is that this announcement would never have happened without a dedicated movement of people. If big oil or the the governments of Alberta and Canada think that this announcement is going to stop that movement, they couldn't be more wrong.

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