Canada’s not trailing the world on climate action, environment minister insists

The House

Canada’s environment minister insists the federal government's commitment to reduce climate changing emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels over the next decade is just as ambitious as the higher targets announced this week by other western nations.

Youth climate protesters bunker down against cold winds while holding a banner in downtown Toronto on Friday, March 19, 2021.(Sam Nar/CBC)

Canada's environment minister insists the federal government's vow to reduce climate-changing emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels over the next decade is just as ambitious as the higher targets announced this week by other western nations.

"Canada spent an enormous amount of time looking at how it could actually do as much as it possibly could," Jonathan Wilkinson said in an interview airing today on .

"We think that the plan that we brought forward is … aligned with the science, but it is ambitious and attainable. And I think that's what Canadians want."

Climate change is suddenly the hot topic on the world stage, now that U.S. President Joe Biden is making it a cornerstone of his administration's policy initiatives.

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, were two of many world leaders to commit to large emission cuts to address the climate crisis at the virtual Earth Day summit on April 22.(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Biden invited 40 world leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to a virtual summit this week at which he announced the U.S. would reduce emissions by 50 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

"This is a moral imperative. An economic imperative. A moment of peril," Biden said in kicking off the summit on Thursday.

Other leaders expressed their commitments in similarly urgent tones.

Britain's Conservative government is aiming for a 78 per cent cut from 1990 emission levels by 2035 as it prepares to chair COP26 — the UN climate change summit — in November.

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson, left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hold a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020.(Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canada's targets seem to be on the low end. Wilkinson argued that measuring the climate commitments of nations isn't as simple as comparing proposed percentage reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada, he said, has done much more than the U.S. and many European countries to phase out coal-powered electrical generation. Further emissions reductions here will have to focus largely on the transportation and energy sectors — areas where achieving reductions will be much harder.

That explains why the Trudeau government believes it must lean heavily on putting a price on carbon — set to rise to $170 a ton by 2030 — and other measures such as new clean fuel standards, reductions in methane emissions and money in the recent budget for home retrofits.

The question now is the same one that's come out of every climate change summit since the 1990s: How do you get countries to actually follow through?

Too ambitious, or not ambitious enough?

Critics' reviews of Canada's new emissions target have been mixed.

"It's strong. It's ambitious," said Clean Energy Canada executive director Merran Smith, one of three members of an environmental panel assembled by to discuss Canada's new target.

"What I'm more concerned about is actual climate action and actually hitting these targets. And I think Canada can do it. But it's going to take strong policies, plans, incentives and regulations, and we need to get moving quickly."

Andrew Leach is a professor at the University of Alberta who specializes in energy economics. He said a 40 to 45 per cent emissions reduction in the next decade is out of Canada's reach.

"It's too much, too fast," he said. "I think we're on pace for the mid-thirties and the U.S. can help (get) to that.

"But to get into the 40s … it's just, you know, buildings, houses, electricity, industries, et cetera, the employment transitions that might be required to get that far, that fast. And even the big capital investments just aren't going to be there by 2030."

Talk is cheap

Setting goals, aiming high, thinking big — Canada's been doing those things on the climate file for 30 years now. What it hasn't managed to do yet is come up with a plan to follow through.

The Trudeau government is trying to buck that trend with last December's climate plan — which included a dramatic increase in the price on carbon over the next decade — and this week's budget, which committed billions of dollars to promoting green technology, zero-emission vehicles, cleaner fuel and carbon capture and storage.

Those measures put Canada on track to reduce emissions by 36 per cent, the government says.

Wilkinson insisted the efforts won't stop there.

"We have nine years,'' he said. "We need to continue to make this a priority."

But priorities change. Governments do, too. Wilkinson said he's aware that many Canadians are skeptical.

"This is an issue that requires continued ambition," he said. "It requires continued work. It's going to require continued investment."

It doesn't hurt that Canada is now part of an international consensus on the need to act swiftly.

British cabinet minister Alok Sharma is the president of COP26, to be held in Glasgow late this year. His government has its own critics who doubt its ability to reach the goal of reducing emissions by 78 per cent.

Sharma told he welcomed Canada's new target, noting the growing global consensus on the need for dramatic steps now if nations are to have any chance of meeting their collective goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

British minister Alok Sharma: 'All the G7 nations now have indices which are aligned to net zero.'(Leon Neal/Reuters)

"The good news, of course, is that with the commitments that have been made by the U.S., by Canada, by Japan, all the G7 nations now have indices which are aligned to net zero," he said. "And I think that is a benchmark for all countries around the world to follow.

"What's been very clear in terms of the opening segment of the summit is that all leaders have been speaking from the same page, talking about the importance of the next 10 years and the sense of urgency that we need to bring together globally in delivering in Glasgow in November."

So the road to Glasgow is paved with good intentions. All that's missing is a detailed plan explaining what Canada and its allies intend to do upon arrival.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.

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