Canada tabled new legislation on November 19th that would force current and future federal governments to set binding climate targets for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
If it passes, the bill would put the country on equal footing with a swathe of others like China, the UK, New Zealand and France who have recently announced legally binding measures to go carbon neutral within half a century.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau jumped on the idea, stating, “ignoring the risks of climate change isn’t an option. That approach would only make the costs higher and the long-term consequences worse. Canadians have been clear — they want climate action now.”
And it looks like they’ll get it. But at what cost? We all know that transitioning to carbon neutral will be good for the environment — there’s no denying that.
Yet there are risks to setting legally binding forecasts.
Trudeau isn’t the first Canadian politician to make such bold claims about scrapping fossil fuels. In fact, back in 2003 Dalton McGuinty — the former smooth-talking leader of the Liberal Party of Ontario — promised that by the end of 2007, all five of Ontario’s coal plants would be closed because their pollution had become a public health issue.
At the time, Ontario’s coal-fired generation represented 7,560 MW of capacity, which was about a quarter of the total. And Canada was frequently referred to as one of the “biggest climate laggards” worldwide.
McGuinty’s forecast was brash and unequivocal, and it won him office.
But flicking the switch on coal proved problematic. What was going to replace it? He’d promised nuclear, natural gas, wind and solar. But Ontario didn’t have enough of those, and many of its power plants were too far from gas transmission lines to import the substitute cheaply.
Just 18 months into office, McGuinty was forced to admit he’d been a bit hasty. Now, he said, he’d have to revise the deadline to 2009. Then, facing heavy criticism and growing doubts about his forecast, he changed it to 2014. And, as if to seal his own fate, he signed it into law in 2006.
By the end of 2014, the Ontario Power Authority declared that Ontario had become “the single largest greenhouse gas reduction measure in North America.” And it had. But it still relied on coal for some of its generation and had mostly switched to natural gas, another fossil fuel, over wind and solar.
Meanwhile, shutting down coal meant Ontario also had to import expensive coal-fired energy from two ancient, heavily polluting generating stations in Ohio.
The net result, in addition to a 51% increase in electricity prices between 2004–2013, was poetic justice: the southern winds brought more pollution into Ontario from coal than there was before. Guelph, a bucolic college town in the center of Southern Ontario, became one of the cities with the poorest air in the province.
As reward for his effort, McGuinty was booted from office and ended up leaving the country.
So be careful what you forecast, and the risks that doing so can create.