Skip to main content
opinion

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault announced on Friday that Ottawa is giving itself a three-month extension to produce a plan to meet Canada’s target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.PATRICK DOYLE/The Canadian Press

The scale of the challenge facing the federal government in implementing its newly expansive climate agenda was laid bare on Friday.

At once, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault announced the launch of consultations on an array of pivotal planks that the Liberals campaigned on this fall. Among them are a cap on emissions from the oil and gas sector, a sales quota for electric vehicles, a net-zero electricity grid by 2035, and a plan to reduce methane emissions from the fossil-fuel sector and across the broader economy.

Any one of those, on its own, could occupy much of the government’s climate-related capacity. So it wasn’t a surprise when Mr. Guilbeault also announced on Friday that Ottawa is giving itself a three-month extension to produce a plan, required by climate accountability legislation passed earlier this year, to meet Canada’s target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.

Even with that plan now to be tabled in March, rather than this month, Mr. Guilbeault said in an interview that consultations around some of its key components – let alone actual design of the policies – won’t be done by then.

That means, as Mr. Guilbeault conceded, that the government will have to make “some assumptions” about the emissions-reducing impact of policies it hasn’t fully developed yet. “I’m sure some people will say they’d want to see more details,” he said, “and I think that’s going to be a fair comment.”

Coal went from investor pariah to luvvie in one year. How did that happen as the planet warms up?

A non-partisan commission is what Canada needs to address the emerging national challenges presented by climate change

But at this point, the realistic question is not whether the Liberals can produce implementation specifics before next spring, which would require superhuman expedience by government standards.

Rather, it’s whether they can get all these policies firmly in place during their current mandate, which in a minority parliament could be less than two years. And, equally importantly, whether they can meaningfully engage with affected industries during the talks that are now starting, without watering down commitments in ways that put the 2030 target out of reach.

Some of the measures promise to be easier on both of those fronts than others.

The EV quota, known as a zero-emissions vehicle mandate, may be simplest. The Liberals have already signalled the target: half of all new passenger vehicle sales by 2030, and all of them by 2035. And Ottawa can model its system after ZEV mandates in place provincially in British Columbia and Quebec, the latter of which Mr. Guilbeault was involved in crafting before he entered federal politics.

Still, there will be a fair amount of back-and-forth with the auto sector and other stakeholders, including around interim sales targets between now and 2030, and how much government spends on charging infrastructure, purchase incentives and other supplementary measures. Plus the Liberals are promising to simultaneously develop regulations to reduce emissions from heavy-duty vehicles, for which electrification is not as far along.

Bolstering methane regulations, which by 2030 are supposed to reduce leaks of the highly potent greenhouse gas from the oil and gas industry by 75 per cent from 2012 levels, is not very contentious as a goal. In principle, everyone agrees that those emissions need to come way down.

Actually making good on that commitment, though, requires highly complex regulatory work to ensure leaks are detected and prevented. With the Liberals also committing to reducing economywide methane emissions by 30 per cent, they have to figure out how to cut down those from other sectors, too – particularly agriculture, where they are harder to measure and avoid. And they will have to deal with provinces, including Alberta, that currently have equivalency agreements allowing them to set their own methane regulations.

Federal-provincial relations will be more central to the net-zero electricity pledge. Ottawa has some ability to regulate polluting power sources, which it has already used to try to end coal-fired power by 2030. But electricity policy is almost entirely a provincial responsibility, and some provinces (most notably Nova Scotia) are not on pace to meet the coal requirement. Now the Liberals will also be trying to force provinces to cut down on other fossil-fuel power sources, which could be even trickier.

But it’s the oil and gas emissions caps that loom as the biggest test.

That promise, to freeze sectoral carbon emissions at their current level and then shrink those caps at five-year intervals, is where Ottawa can expect to encounter the strongest resistance, led by Alberta’s government. It’s also where the actual plans are most ambiguous.

Not only have the Liberals yet to indicate what future targets for reduced emissions might be; they are also are a long way from figuring out what sort of model they will use to set and enforce them. It’s unclear, for instance, whether the caps will be set for the entire industry or be company-specific; likewise, whether it will involve the establishment of some sort of emissions pricing or credit-trading market. And there will be pressure, as with most of these policies, to heavily subsidize clean-technology investments that would help meet the targets.

It has the makings of the sort of policy that could be in development for a very long time. But that’s not a luxury that the Liberals have.

“I think we can no longer afford to take four or five years to develop new regulations,” Mr. Guilbeault said, acknowledging the pace at which government has sometimes moved previously.

He considers it his responsibility, he said, to have the oil and gas caps (along with the other measures) “up and running by the time our government might be up for re-election.”

That’s further in the future than the 2030 plan is due. But looking at the work ahead, it doesn’t seem like very long at all.

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.