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People cross-country ski in the cold weather as an industrial plant is shown in the back ground in Toronto, on Feb. 4.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

The federal government is scrambling to complete a plan to meet Canada’s targets for reducing greenhouse- gas emissions, as it faces a looming deadline imposed by its own climate accountability law.

Per the legislation passed last summer, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault was to table the strategy – showing a detailed path to cutting emissions 40 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 – by December of last year. But he invoked a clause allowing for it to be delayed three months, to late March.

Even so, the governing Liberals are wrestling with a time crunch of their own making, along with more fundamental challenges involving hard-to-decarbonize sectors and uncertain impacts of federal policies.

There is still hope that, if the government embraces transparency, the Emissions Reduction Plan (ERP) will provide the clearest picture to date of where things stand. It could help bring urgency to core policies in development, and illuminate where more ambition is needed. The required inclusion of an interim emissions target for 2026 should make it harder to push promised reductions to later in the decade.

But based on conversations with a range of influential climate-policy advocates who have been engaging with the government during the preparation of the ERP, there is cause for concern about what exactly the picture will look like. And there is some risk that it will contribute to skepticism about the seriousness of Ottawa’s approach.

One of the Liberals’ challenges is the needless rush in which the plan is being prepared.

The Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act gave Ottawa six months from its entry into law to present the 2030 plan, or nine months if it used the extension. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called an election shortly after the bill’s passage, and the campaign was followed by a lull during which he was slow to appoint a new cabinet.

As a result, work on the ERP seems to have only ramped up this winter, leaving about three months for a highly complex undertaking requiring collaboration between many different ministries with pieces of the puzzle, as well as outside stakeholders.

A related obstacle, which Mr. Guilbeault has acknowledged, has to do with the readiness of some key components.

In December, the government launched consultations on a slew of ambitious new climate policies, including emissions caps for Canada’s oil-and-gas sector, electric-vehicle sales quotas, a net-zero electrical grid by 2035 and stricter methane regulations.

None of those processes will be wrapped by March. So Ottawa can’t definitively forecast how many megatonnes of emissions they will cut

That’s most glaringly a problem with the oil-and-gas caps. The government has not figured out what level they will be set at, other than that they are to be in declining five-year increments, nor the enforcement mechanism. Landing on those answers is contentious, and likely to stretch into next year – a huge variable considering the fossil-fuel industry is responsible for more than a quarter of national emissions.

But the challenge of putting together the ERP goes beyond the process, and into something more basic: the sheer difficulty of getting to the 2030 target, given Canada’s emissions profile.

In some sectors, significant emissions cuts can relatively safely be expected this decade, partly because of carbon pricing and other federal policies. Electricity generation is one, although Canada already has a cleaner grid than most countries, so reductions will be comparatively limited. Passenger vehicles is another, through electrification and improved fuel-efficiency standards. Methane emissions, especially from natural gas, should fall. Nature-based solutions will help.

In some industries that pollute the most, though, a steep near-term decline is harder to envision. Again, oil-and-gas production – where emissions have risen in most recent years – is central. That sector is pointing to carbon-capture technology, for which it is anticipating new federal subsidies.

But it’s hard to see its reductions in the 2020s being anywhere near the 40 per cent promised economywide, unless Ottawa proves unexpectedly willing to push for production decreases, and accept major backlash from oil-producing provinces.

There are other hard-to-decarbonize sectors, too – heavy industry such as steel and cement, agriculture, commercial transportation – where emissions cuts will likely be slow despite some promising technological advances. Add it up, and it’s not easy to make the plan’s math work.

That doesn’t mean Ottawa was wrong to set the 40-per-cent target, in advance of last year’s COP26 climate summit. It’s no more ambitious than what most other developed countries pledged, and Canada has some of the world’s highest per-capita emissions.

But we’re overdue for a public reckoning with what meeting the goal would require, which is where there is some optimism around the ERP’s potential.

When the government last outlined how it would hit its climate targets, in December, 2020, outside experts were frustrated by a lack of detail. The Liberals insisted that modelling indicated more than a 30-per-cent emissions cut by 2030 (the goal at the time), but scarcely showed their work.

The accountability law now requires more specificity. Although the necessary level of detail is somewhat open to interpretation, it could – and should – involve publishing the modelling of each sector’s trajectory and how policies will impact it.

This may also be just the start of a better climate-policy process. In a statement, Mr. Guilbeault’s office noted that the ERP is “the first of many requirements” under the accountability law, which indeed also include a progress report in 2023. It said the government is considering “more formal, ongoing, and consistent engagement processes for the establishment of future emissions reduction targets, plans and reports.”

But for now, what may be needed as much as anything is acknowledgment of what remains uncertain – candour that the government is being encouraged, in various ways, to embrace.

Michael Bernstein, who heads the advocacy group Clean Prosperity, said he has been suggesting to Ottawa that it present several different emissions-reduction pathways, depending on how policies in consultations take shape. Dave Sawyer, an economist with the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, said the plan could be broken down into policies already developed, in development and merely promised. Julia Croome, a lawyer with Ecojustice, said that while the government has to meet a certain standard for specificity now, the law gives it scope to provide further details through an amended plan to follow.

None of those options would be ideal. It would be better, by 2022, for Ottawa to have one clear strategy for the rest of the decade that stands up to scrutiny.

But if the plan will be imperfect, it should at least be honest. Canadians need a clear accounting of where current policies will get them and what decisions lie ahead, not a public-relations exercise.

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