Canada’s Clean Air Act: The Solution or the Problem?

“Climate change is rapidly emerging as one of the most serious threats that humanity may ever face.”

~ Kenyan Environment Minister Kivutha Kibwana, President of the conference, at the second meeting of the Parties to Kyoto Protocol, November 6, 2006.

litbonanza.jpgThe second meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol took place from November 6 to 17, 2006 at the United Nations offices in Nairobi, Kenya. What were the results of this meeting of the nations? Was there be a renewed dedication to global responsibility or was a multitude of promises made by leading economies including Canada simply to be forgotten the next day?

In April 1998, Canada signed the Kyoto Protocol and ratified it in December 2002, committing itself to a 6% decrease of 1990 greenhouse gas emissions by 2008-2012 [1] . This ratification equalled international law. More than 8 years after signing the Kyoto Protocol, Canada has little to show in terms of efforts, instead boasting a greater than 26% increase in emissions since 1990 [2] . More recently, the then Minister of Environment Rona Ambrose unveiled a new, “made-in-Canada” proposal to be implemented in lieu of the Kyoto Protocol: the Clean Air Act. Will this act redeem Canada in the eyes of the international community or will it prove as ineffective as it’s predecessors? Or should a last minute attempt be made in putting the Kyoto agreement into force?

Although a change is afoot, there still appears to be an opinion in North America that climate change is not an immediate issue, or rather that someone else can take care of it, later. When I asked a friend what she thought about global warming, she replied that she’d be dead regardless before any effects were really felt. According to NASA scientist James Hansen, if emissions continue to rise at the rate they are now, there are approximately ten years left before the Earth reaches a critical temperature at which it will enter a virtually unbreakable positive carbon cycle [3] . So, unless my friend plans on an early death, global warming is something that will, and arguably is, affecting us right now.

Whether or not you accept Dr. Hansen’s theory, real effects of warming have already been seen across the globe. NASA reports that the ten warmest years in any record have occurred since 1990, with 2005 being the hottest (tied with 1998) [4] . Drought in Africa and Australia is believed to be associated to global warming, as has the pine beetle expansion in British Columbia. [5] These are just a few examples of the problems that are already occurring and will continue to occur in a higher degree in my friend’s lifetime and mine. Which brings us back to the question: is the Clean Air Act enough, or should more stricter regulations be put into place? I will compare the Clean Air Act to the Kyoto Protocol and suggest some alternative solutions to the problem we as Canadians currently face: being unable to reach our Kyoto commitments.

Climate change refers to the overall increase in the Earth’s temperature as measured on the surface and in the water due to anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions including carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and nitrous oxide. It is assumed that GHG traps the Sun’s energy, causing an unequal relationship between input to the Earth’s surface and output back to the Sun, producing an increase in overall temperature. This increase in temperature can then cause a number of positive feedback loops. For example, as water heats, it is able to contain less and less dissolved gases, including carbon dioxide, which are therefore released into the atmosphere, in turn causing more of a greenhouse effect, hence more warming. There are some studies and groups that refute the existence of climate change due to human causes. I will not debate this issue here, as the current government of Canada and the parties of the Kyoto Protocol all accept anthropogenic warming as being true.

The Clean Air Act proposes to reduce greenhouse emissions by 45-65% of 2003 levels by 2050 [6]. Under the Kyoto Protocol, a reduction of more than 33% (from 1990 levels) would be required by 2012, with further reduction targets put into place after 2012. Currently, Kyoto targets appear to be impossible to obtain (more than 33% decrease in six years). On the other hand, Clean Air Act targets for 2050 appear to be too little in comparison, as they are considerably less of a decrease than 45-65% when considered in terms of 1990 levels rather than 2003 levels.

Interim targets under the Clean Air Act would be largely intensity-based, meaning that emissions would be measured per unit of energy/product created. This means that if production increases, emissions will be allowed to increase as well. Other than intensity-based, the Clean Air Act does not recommend any specific targets but rather that they be generated after ongoing consultation with industry [7]. In comparison, the Kyoto Protocol states specific short-term targets for each party as well as overall targets and mechanisms by which to achieve these targets. Mechanisms include Clean Development, aimed at projects to reduce emissions including the creation of carbon sinks; Joint Implementation, which would allow parties to work together to reduce emissions; and Emissions Trading which involves acquiring emission units from other parties. Domestic actions are also expected to reduce emissions at source [8].

Under the Clean Air Act, industrial polluters have until 2010 before governmental regulations will be put in place. This allows time for industry to redesign current energy practices, but also leaves a four-year period in which emissions will most likely increase before the regulations are enforced. By 2011, new regulations would be created for fuel consumption, which would again create lengthy delay before real action would occur [9]. In a press conference, Ambrose also told reporters that the auto sector would face a 5.3-megaton reduction by 2010 (no specifics were given) [10] . The Kyoto Protocol does not offer any specific regulations, as these are left to each party to create.

The Clean Air Act also promises mandatory emissions reporting on provincial levels with an effort to reduce regulatory overlaps, similar to GHG reporting done by Kyoto parties. In addition, an environmental damages fund would be introduced that would apply non-compliance fines directly to clean up. In terms of enforcement Kyoto is lacking, as it holds little power over compliance, which is seen as more of a social responsibility then punishable law. If a country is not in compliance with its emissions targets, then that country is required to make up the difference plus an additional 30 percent. Additionally, that country will be suspended from making transfers under an emissions trading program [11].

The main deficiency of the Clean Air Act is the lack of specific short-term targets, and long timelines to those targets that are given. When immediate action seems necessary, the Clean Air Act would instead spend years in consultation with industry, and rather than set regulations now, has set dates for up to 5 year in the future when regulations will be set. The advantages of the Clean Air Act is that it will give industries time to prepare for regulations and that some non-compliance fines would be put in place. Conversely, little money is allocated by the act for the creation of alternate, clean energy sources, carbon sinks or to provincial initiatives.

One of the biggest criticisms of the Kyoto Protocol is the exemption of major GHG emitters China and India from ratification. Countries are divided into Annex I and Non-Annex I parties. Annexed I includes developed nations that contributed significantly to the onset of global warming during the Industrial Age as well as in the present. Both China and India are not developed but developing; hence their exclusion, yet China is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases [12] . Although the addition of Russia to the ratification the Kyoto Protocol met 55% of GHG emitters, the non-compliance of the US and Australia (and now Canada) makes it difficult for real benefits to be reaped and more importantly makes it easier for Non-Annex I parties such as China to refuse GHG reductions.

As one can see, neither policy is perfect in creation or implementation. The difference between the two is the sense of urgency and global responsibility displayed by the Kyoto Protocol, and the lack thereof in the Clean Air Act. As said before, it would be difficult for Canada to meet previously set Kyoto targets for 2008-2012. Difficult, but not impossible, according to the opposition parties of the government, who share a collective stance of backing the Kyoto Protocol over the Clean Air Act [13] . Realistically, meeting Kyoto targets would be ideal, but perhaps not possible at this time, given the current political climate of the country. Other countries including those collectively under the European Union, Japan, and the United Kingdom have reported schedules in line with their Kyoto targets, but Canada faces a current set back of at least +27% increase in addition to it’s required reduction of 6%.

I believe a better approach would be one in line with a number of states in the US and cities in Canada are already adopting: realistic but somewhat powerful long and short-term goals. The California Global Warming Solutions Act signed in September 2006 will aim to reduce GHG emissions by 25% in 2020 and 80% in 2050 via market-based incentives, mandatory caps, and a possible carbon trading market with other states [14] . The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative unites Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states of the US in a cap-and-trade program in carbon dioxide emission from power plants. Several states have also established individual goals to reduce emissions from 1990 levels in a set number of years (for example, New York aims for a reduction of 5% from 1990 levels by 2010).

Alternatively, programs can be based on those in countries who are making their Kyoto commitments. If not a emissions trading scheme, greater pledge to the creation of carbon sinks, levies on non-domestic traditional energy bills, a stronger renewables obligation (commercial electricity suppliers must supply set portion of electricity from renewable sources), and/or community/ building grants for the installation of renewable energy sources (as created in the UK) [15].

Some of these campaigns could be established at a federal level, along with more federal-funded research into alternative fuel sources and education about consumption rates. If a more serious view of the dangers of inactivity in the face of increasing greenhouse emissions were taken both by the Canadian public and government, Kyoto commitments would not be such an impossible target to achieve, even within the next six years.


1. UNFCCC. Countries included in Annex B to the Kyoto Protocol and their emission targets. Retrieved November 6, 2006.

2. UNFCCC (2006). National greenhouse gas inventory data for the period 1990-2004 and status of reporting.

3. “A Science Advisor Unmuzzled”. (March 24, 2006). Time.

4. Hansen, J., R. Ruedy, M. Sato and K. Lo (2006) GISS Surface Temperature Analysis, Global Temperature Trends: 2005 Summation. NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

5. Allan L. Carroll, Steve W. Taylor, Jacques Régnière and Les Safranyik (2003). Effects of Climate Change on Range Expansion by the Mountain Pine Beetle in British Columbia. Mountain Pine Beetle Symposium: Challenges and Solutions.

6. Environment Canada (October 19, 2006). The need for immediate action- Canada’s new clean air regulatory agenda. Press Release.

7. Parliament of Canada. C-30: An Act to amend to Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, the Energy Efficiency Act and the Motor Vehicle Fuel Consumption Standards Act (Canada’s Clean Air Act). Retrieved November 6, 2006.

8. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

9. Environment Canada (October 19, 2006). The need for immediate action- Canada’s new clean air regulatory agenda. Press Release.

10. CTV News (October 20, 2006) Clean Air Act receives rocky reception from MPs.

11. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)

12. UNFCCC (2004). The People’s Republic of China Initial National Communication on Climate Change.

13. CBC News (November 9, 2006). Harper ‘twiddling his thumbs’ on climate change: Graham.

14. Office of the Governor (September 27, 2006) Gov. Schwarzenegger Signs Landmark Legislation to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Press Release.

15. Department of Trade and Industry, UK Government. Energy Sources- Sustainable Technologies.

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Jasmeen Bains is in the final year of a very long cell biology and genetics undergraduate degree.