09/17/2015 04:11 EDT | Updated 09/17/2015 08:59 EDT

Cut Carbon Emissions Now Or Risk Economic Obsolescence, Canada Told

Canada, Hamilton, Construction vehicles in front of foundry
WIN-Initiative/Neleman via Getty Images
Canada, Hamilton, Construction vehicles in front of foundry

Canada is well positioned to become a leader in a new low-carbon economy, says a new report prepared for the UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

But if the country doesn’t take steps now, it risks getting stuck with a high-carbon economy that won’t be able to compete globally, says the report from Calgary-based CMC Research Institutes.

The report is part of a larger 16-country study ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December.

It came out as Conservative leader Stephen Harper, NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau prepared for a debate on Canada’s economy, to take place Thursday night.

Despite the country’s reliance on oil and other carbon-heavy fuels for exports, Canada has major competitive advantages in decarbonization, report co-author Chris Bataille says.

“We have an enormous pan-Canadian storehouse of renewable energy and one of the largest, most usable capacities in the world for the geological storage of carbon,” he said in a statement.

The report cites wind, solar and hydro power as areas where Canada can be competitive. It also sees a future for the country in growing non-food crops for biofuels and in carbon capture and storage.

But it says the country needs a coordinated approach to these issues and must do more to support efforts to get these industries off the ground, by funding research and development and creating the necessary infrastructure.

With the support of some provincial governments, Canadian businesses have already been moving into the low-carbon economy. A report released Thursday by Clean Energy Canada found clean energy investment soared 88 per cent in the country in 2014, to $11 billion, helped along in particular by Ontario's green energy plan.

"That’s almost double the investment in the agriculture, forestry and fishing sectors combined. Also, employment in clean energy industry grew 14 per cent — the fastest such rate of job growth in the country," Clean Energy Canada said in a statement.

The authors of the CMC report don’t see moving to a low-carbon economy as a choice. If Canada fails to act, it risks losing access to foreign markets, they say. They note that 90 per cent of Canada’s foreign trade is now with countries — including the U.S. — that have decarbonization programs.

“With myopic and delayed decarbonization policy, all bets are off, and Canada lays exposed to increasingly hawkish climate geopolitics and continued market access barriers,” the report said.

Keeping access to world markets in the future will “require policies as strong as or stronger than those of our trading partners, effective immediately,” the report argues.

It recommends, among other things, that policymakers set a price on carbon and remove subsidies for fossil fuel industries.

“Canada’s current policy path is insufficient to the challenge in heavy industry and the oil and gas sector,” the report said. Steps taken by provinces, such as B.C’s carbon tax and Quebec’s cap-and-trade program, are “far too weak” to create a low-carbon economy, the report added.

Canada has been doing well in reducing carbon emissions in transportation, electricity generation and powering buildings, the report noted, though it still needs to do better.

Does Canada Have Credibility On Climate Change?

The Harper government this spring committed to a reduction in carbon emissions of 30 per cent by 2030. That’s an ambitious goal, the report says, but it will require the federal government and provinces to work together to reach the target.

And the report sees another problem — one of “credibility.”

“The most significant risk is a lack of historical political action to align emission policies with stated aspirational targets,” the report says.

In other words, Canada has promised carbon cuts before, and failed to deliver.

The country has come to be known as a spoiler at climate change conferences, one of a handful of developed countries that stood in the way of ambitious carbon reduction goals.

For that reason, Canada has been repeatedly named “fossil of the year” by the Climate Action Network, even receiving the activist group’s “lifetime unachievement” award.

But the report sees a bright future for a Canada that’s ready to change direction on climate change.

“Canada’s national circumstances may include some seemingly obvious impediments to long-term decarbonization, but with thoughtful, long-term policy, the costs and risks are manageable,” the report concluded.