Climate Change Law in Alberta

Now that you understand a bit more about what climate change is and how it’s being handled on a global scale, let’s take a closer look at what this means for environmental law. We’ll ask the difficult question what exactly IS climate change law and how can climate change law make a difference?

Both Canada and Alberta have seen some recent advancements in the area of climate change law and policy. Federally, the new Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act [1] imposes a cost on carbon and will be implemented in every province that does not have an equivalent provincial plan. Although the former government of Alberta implemented a price on carbon under the Climate Leadership Act [2], this Act has since been repealed. Instead, the backstop program included in the federal Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act was implemented in Alberta on January 1, 2020.

Another provincial initiative is designed to lower Alberta’s reliance on coal fired electricity. Currently, Alberta uses a lot of coal to generate our electricity and the Renewable Electricity Act [3] is one of the government’s legislative attempts to reduce coal usage and to promote renewable electricity generation in Alberta. The government is employing the ‘Recommendations on Renewable Electricity Program’ with the goal of increasing the amount of renewable electricity generation on Alberta’s power grid. Despite these legislative advancements and as you can read more about in our section on Energy here, more needs to be done before renewable energy will become commonplace in the province. This initiative was started by the previous NDP government but news has not yet been released that it will be scrapped – changes to the program will be something to watch out for over the coming years. 

The Alberta oil sands are both a major source of the economy in our province and a major source of GHG emissions – despite the fact that technological advancements have significantly reduced emissions over the last few years. In fact, a study of oil producers around the world found that, even with these technological advancements, much of the oil sands crude extracted in Alberta is some of the most emissions intensive oil in the world, generating 31% more GHG emissions than the average North-American crude.[4] Check out the graph here for a better picture of this. Measuring the ‘cleanliness’ of our oil and gas sector is a very hotly debated topic but, overall, it is often more complicated than the media portrays it to be. Check out this conversation between a Canadian energy journalist and the lead investigator of Yale’s Environmental Performance Index to learn more

The Oil Sands Emissions Limit Act [5] places an annual emissions limit on the oil sands industry, while allowing the industry to continue growing. To allow for an easier transition away from an oil sands based economy we will need to employ other tools to increase renewable energy in the province and to fight climate change in the process. This is important due to the emissions intensive nature of oil sands extraction.

Finally, there is some work being done to manage methane. Methane, although not as widely known as carbon dioxide, is a dangerous greenhouse gas which actually has a more concentrated negative effect on the atmosphere.[6] It is the main constituent of natural gas and it is primarily released through venting or through fugitive emissions which occur due to leaks. (In Alberta, the oil and gas sector is the largest source of methane emissions.[7])

To deal with the negative effects of this lesser known gas, the government has set a goal to reduce methane emissions by 45% by the year 2025. The Government of Alberta has stated that their plan to do this involves the application of new emissions design standards to new facilities; the improvement of leak detection, as well as repairing and monitoring methane leaks; and increasing the standards on existing facilities by 2020.[8]

Each of these programs provides us with examples of how laws and regulations can shape and be shaped by climate change. Although these policies are quite new and we cannot yet determine how successful these policies will be in combating climate change, nor do we know if the current government will continue them, they do demonstrate a shift in focus. For example, in the past, Alberta received a D- grade on the Conference Board of Canada’s ranking of provincial environmental performance.[9] There has been some suggestion that implementing the goals listed above will address areas that the report highlighted as needing particular improvement, including lowering nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides and GHG emissions, emissions which will be lowered through both the carbon levy and coal phase-out.[10]

At this point in our discussion, you probably have a better sense of some of the threats that climate change may pose to our environment. So now let’s talk about some of the legal consequences associated with climate change?

Climate change may have serious effects on any number of areas of law from insurance to municipal law. In the next section we will look at some of the ways climate change is influencing law more broadly, but these are by no means the only ways climate change will impact our laws in the future. Hopefully, this brief introduction will inspire you to look further at how changes to our climate will eventually affect every aspect of our lives.

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[1] Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act, SC 2018, c 12.

[2] Climate Leadership Act, SA 2016, c C-16.9 [repealed].

[3] Renewable Electricity Act, SA 2016, c R-16.5.

[4] Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Oil-Climate Index” (2015) online: http://oci.carnegieendowment.org/#; Benjamin Israel, “The Real GHG trend: Oilsands among the most carbon intensive crudes in North America” (4 October 2017) Pembina Institute online: http://www.pembina.org/blog/real-ghg-trend-oilsands.

[4] Oil Sands Emissions Limit Act, SA 2016, c O-7.5.

[6] Steve Hamburg, “Methane: The other important greenhouse gas” (2018) Environmental Defense Fund online: https://www.edf.org/climate/methane-other-important-greenhouse-gas.

[7] Alberta Energy Regulator, “Methane Reduction” online: https://aer.ca/providing-information/by-topic/methane-reduction.

[8] Government of Alberta, “Reducing Methane Emissions” online: https://www.alberta.ca/climate-methane-emissions.aspx

[9] The Conference Board of Canada, “Provincial and Territorial Ranking: Environment” (April 2016) online: http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/provincial/environment.aspx?AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1.

[10] Andrew Read, Binnu Jeyakumar & Benjamin Israel, “Alberta’s environmental performance will improve with implementation of the Climate Leadership Plan” (22 April 2016) Pembina Institute online: http://www.pembina.org/blog/alberta-s-environmental-performance-will-improve-implementation-of-climate-leadership-plan.

 

 

 

Climate Change & the Law

Lesson Plan: Fundamentals of Environmental Law
Lesson Plan: Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Lesson Plan: Tragedy of the Commons
Lesson Plan: Climate Litigation

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