Skip to main content

Ontario is joining Quebec and California in a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse-gas emissions.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper is grossly misleading Canadians by claiming his government has succeeded in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, one of Canada's leading environmental analysts said Thursday.

In leaders' debates, Mr. Harper has boasted that Canada's emissions are now lower than they were in 2005 before he took office, saying his government was the first to see a reduction in greenhouse gases (GHGs).

Four things to know: See where the major parties stand on the oil sands, climate change and the environment

But in a report released Thursday, Simon Fraser University professor Mark Jaccard concludes that it was not federal action that reduced GHGs, but instead the recession of 2008-09, British Columbia's carbon tax, and Ontario's effort to phase out coal-fired power.

"In the nine years since its promise to reduce Canadian emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 and 65 per cent by 2050, the Canadian government has implemented virtually no policies that would materially reduce emissions," Mr. Jaccard said. "The 2020 target is now unachievable without great harm to the Canadian economy."

At the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, Mr. Harper revisited his original 2020 promise, and matched the U.S. commitment to cut carbon emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 – a goal that Mr. Jaccard said is now essentially out of reach.

Liberals and New Democrats are promising a more assertive federal role as countries prepare to negotiate an international climate treaty at a United Nations summit scheduled for Paris in early December.

The NDP is particularly ambitious, vowing to impose a national emissions cap and trading scheme that will help reduce emissions by 34 per cent below 1990 levels by 2025. Justin Trudeau pledges that a Liberal government will work with the provinces to adopt national carbon pricing and set new targets for emission reductions.

Mr. Jaccard has a long history of issuing "report cards" on federal climate policy, and frequently attacked the former Chretien government for failing to regulate carbon emissions. In the report Thursday, he gave the Harper government a "failing grade."

GHG emissions have fallen between 2007 and 2013 "but that has nothing to do with any policies he has implemented, and that has been a gross misrepresentation," the professor said in an interview. "There were no [federal] policies to cause that – zero."

A spokesman for Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq rejected the contention the government has failed to act. "Our government has a proven track record of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Canada," Aglukkaq aide, Ted Laking, said.

He said Ottawa has made major investments in clean energy, including support for Ontario's effort to end coal-fired power.

The Harper government did pass regulations to phase out traditional coal-fired power, but those won't have an impact for the next 10 to 15 years. As well, Ottawa has matched U.S. moves to imposed increasingly tough fuel efficiency standards on vehicles, but, again, those regulations will yield little result before 2020.

Mr. Jaccard said that, if the Conservative government had begun to implement policies when it first promised, the cost to the country to meet its international commitments would have been significantly less than it will now be.

To hit Mr. Harper's 2020 target would require a carbon price of $50 a tonne this year and rising to $150 in five years – or regulations of equivalent effect. Quebec's cap-and-trade program – which Ontario intends to join – had a carbon price this year of roughly $15 a tonne; B.C.'s carbon tax is $30 a tonne.