The Minister’s excuse: “We’re doing what everyone else in the world is doing”

Part 11 in a series of 18 discussion papers

We are often told by Ministers and energy economists that, under the Paris Agreement (and under the terms of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that defines what emissions countries are obliged to count in their national emissions accounting) we have no legal responsibility to “count” our downstream emissions as part of Canada’s national emissions that we have undertaken to reduce.

But the accounting rules are not an answer to the problem we now face. Global emissions from burning fossil fuels are driving the warming of the atmosphere. That includes the massive volume of the downstream emissions released by our exported oil, which we are planning to increase for another 10 or 20 years. There is no existing technology that can “remove” them from the atmosphere once they are released. The fact that the Government of Canada does not “count” them does not halt the warming. The downstream emissions from our oil contribute directly to climate change in Canada – to the same extent as if those emissions were released in Saskatchewan or in Nova Scotia.

In a media interview in Vancouver on September 2, 2022, Canada’s Environment Minister, Steven Guilbeault, was asked to explain the rationale of the government’s plan to “cap” emissions from oil and gas production while excluding the emissions from the product we export. The question was put to him directly: “if the government was serious about reducing emissions why not full-count every single emission we create to better understand total emissions and how to reduce them?”

Here is the Minister’s reply:

One word, IPCC. We’re using IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] guidelines for our greenhouse gas inventories, as are most of the countries in the world. The way the IPCC guidelines have been written is that you count the emissions at the point of combustion.  We’re doing what everyone else around the world is doing at the proposal of the IPCC. Should the IPCC change their guidelines to move towards what some people call full-carbon accounting then Canada will certainly be happy to do that. But no country I know is including its scope-three emissions in its national inventory. No one is doing that. There emissions are captured somewhere. They’re not escaping the world greenhouse gas accounting system.

— Steven Guilbeault, quoted by journalist Nicole Gammage in The Tyee, September 2, 2022 (emphasis added)

But the downstream emissions from our oil exports are not “captured” anywhere. Direct air removal technologies that have the capability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere after oil has been burned as fuel do not exist anywhere the world, other than in very small-scale experimental form, and have no prospect of being deployed at any scale for many decades to come. All the downstream emissions from our oil exports will go into the atmosphere.  They will only be ‘captured’ in the metaphorical sense that they will be counted in the emissions “accounting systems” of other countries, which explains why overall total of global emissions will continue to rise in line with rising oil and gas production by the world’s major producers, including by Canada. The Minister’s answer “They’re not escaping the world greenhouse gas accounting system” was a non-answer. It is a disingenuous formula of words aimed to soften the hard truth that he has no answer.