Telling Harper what he wants to hear

Something fishy is going on over at Environment Canada, where a recent report on greenhouse-gas emissions is uncharacteristically flawed – in favour of the Harper government’s position.

On Aug. 8, Environment Minister Peter Kent announced that Canada is half way toward meeting its greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions targets for 2020, and congratulated his government for having “set the stage for the progress we’ve achieved this year.” Minister Kent drew his remarks from a new Environment Canada (EC) report titled, “Canada’s Emissions Trends 2012.” Unfortunately, key conclusions made in the report are without merit, and the progress Minister Kent heralds is largely illusory. It appears that the Harper government is either meddling in EC’s science reporting or that EC, pulverized by cutbacks, has resorted to telling Kent what he wants to hear. Perhaps it is both.

As seen in The Mark News.
As seen in The Mark News.

The report makes a number of spurious claims. It says, for instance, “Total emissions in 2020 are projected to decrease to 720 Mt.” But the emission level in 2010 was 692 Mt, so 720 Mt actually represents an increase in emissions.

It further states, “Government programs are contributing to this by helping to accelerate the adoption of energy efficient technologies and cleaner fuels,” but does not provide any supporting evidence.

The report also suggests that there is a “de-coupling” between the economy and greenhouse-gas emissions, even though data presented later in the report clearly show that higher GDP is associated with greater emissions.

It is hard to believe that these statements – and many others like them – were written by scientists. They are, however, consistent with the “good news” narrative being delivered by Kent and his spokespeople. The distortion, unfortunately, runs much deeper than the spin in the introduction. The report would never survive a rigorous peer review by the scientific community.

“Best practices” for Environment Canada’s emissions projections were established in a 2008 report by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE). Yes, that NRTEE – the one that the Harper government is terminating. As an independent agency, NRTEE has done much to help EC improve its projection methods and interpret the results. In fact, Minister Kent once wrote that, “the NRTEE is in a unique position to advise the federal government on sustainable development solutions.”

One of the “best practices” that NRTEE established is that apples should not be compared with oranges. Specifically, the NRTEE concluded that, “The use of a consistent baseline from year-to-year (including baseline data), assumptions, and conditions across the board is fundamental to ensure emissions forecasts can be accurately compared from year to year.” In this case, then, projections assessing the impact of government policies should be compared against “business as usual” projections using exactly the same assumptions.

Environment Canada has abandoned this sensible approach in its latest report. Progress has been measured against projections that assume different economic conditions (based on “projected sectoral shifts in the economy”), and that use different GHG accounting methods (“for the first time, the contribution of the land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector to achieving Canada’s target is included in our projections”). Outside of government, cooking the books like this is considered fraud.

So, where can we look for an honest assessment of Canada’s GHG emissions progress? NRTEE, again. In June, NRTEE released a report titled, “Reality Check: The State of Climate Progress in Canada.” The report is frank. Rather than promoting a feel-good story in line with government policy, NRTEE says, “We need to move beyond current approaches and have a truly pan-Canadian dialogue on how to do this better. If not, Canada’s 2020 target will remain a hope not a reality.” This, and NRTEE’s insistence that the government follow “best practices” in its GHG emissions projections, may have a lot to do with the Round Table’s abolition. NRTEE’s advice does not fit with the Harper government’s position.

The two reports compare like night and day. The NRTEE report clearly outlines its methodology, results, and conclusions. In particular, NRTEE showed that federal policies, when considered alone, account for a reduction of GHG emissions amounting to a measly 11 Mt. Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan reported the same figure to Parliament in May, using federal department sources. Given that Canada has to reduce its emissions by at least another 113 Mt to reach its 2020 targets, it is not hard to see that the federal government is making little progress. EC’s report, on the other hand, provides no data on the impact of federal policies, yet both the report and Minister Kent suggest that the Harper government’s policies are working. It is a clear misrepresentation of the evidence.

The EC report provides no comment on whether Canada is doing enough to combat the enormous threat of climate change. The voluntary commitment levels that Canada agreed to with the Copenhagen Accord represent a dramatic reduction of our commitments under the Kyoto agreement. Peer-reviewed science indicates that Copenhagen’s voluntary commitment levels are not enough – that even if we meet those targets, we will still see a dangerous temperature increase of 3.3 degrees Celsius in the next century, well more than the two-degrees-Celsius limit that the accord cites as its goal.

The most recent research shows that we are already suffering from the effects of climate change. EC scientists know this. They have published scientific papers arguing as much, and have repeatedly told the government of the day that much stronger action is needed. So, why have they suddenly changed their tune? Meddling, muzzling, or other forms of government interference seem likely culprits.

We need to do more – much more – if we expect the Earth to continue to support our technological civilization as we know it. Pseudoscientific bafflegab telling the Harper government what it wants to hear does a tremendous disservice to Canadians and the world.

Thomas J. Duck: Associate professor, physics and atmospheric science, Dalhousie University; co-founder, Canadian Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Change.