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opinion

Len Coad is research director of public policy for the Conference Board of Canada

Government leaders are meeting in Paris to discuss the world's climate challenge and make further commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Governments have put forward a range of policies and implemented numerous programs in their climate action plans and transportation oversight. While the big emitters such as coal-burning power plants and oil sands operations garner a lot of attention, road transportation has accounted for almost half of the growth in Canada's total GHG emissions between 1990 and 2013.

Transportation is all about moving goods and people from points A to B. We choose a transportation mode based on cost, time, routing, convenience or some other criterion. Transportation gets us to work, opens the door to new experiences, increases our access to goods produced elsewhere, and improves our quality of life.

But transportation comes at a cost to us and to the environment. The environmental liability is growing, and we have not been paying for it as we travel. Since 1990, Canada's GHG emissions from road transport have risen by almost 40 per cent, and this needs to change.

So let's indulge in a bit of time travel. Point A is 2013, when Canada's road transport GHG emissions were 137 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Point B is 2050, when Canada's road transport GHG emissions are just 19.5 Mt. The 2050 level would contribute proportionately to the 80-per-cent reduction (vs. 1990) that climate scientists say we need to achieve to limit global warming to just two degrees celsius. Our guides on the journey are our governments, both federal and provincial.

The first step might be to continue to reduce emissions from the vehicles we rely on. Not enough. Further steps might be a combination of technology (switch to renewable fuels, buy alternative-power vehicles – hybrid, gasoline/electric hybrid, plug-in electric, hydrogen, etc.) and behaviour (car pool, ride share, take a bus or train, cycle or walk). Still not enough. Those decisions would achieve just over half of the required emissions reductions. We need to do all of them, plus more.

It is disingenuous to point out that the greatest emissions reduction possible comes from not travelling, or from not purchasing goods that must be transported. However, to get from 2013's point A to 2050's point B, reduced transportation needs to be part of the solution. That's not easy. It means recognizing that individuals and companies must change their behaviour in hopes that others will also change theirs, and that the collective impact will be lower emissions.

Canadians expect and have been promised a new approach to reducing GHG emissions. In particular, both Alberta and Ontario announced new climate-change strategies last month. The new federal government has promised substantive change, and met with provincial leaders to discuss the country's positioning ahead of the Paris meetings.

Whatever the path, federal and provincial governments need to focus on two key points. First, the targets, policies, strategies and options must be realistic and achievable. This is not easy given the magnitude of the required change. And second, Canadians must change the way we use transportation, and that change will require motivation.

Coming away from the Paris meetings, Canadians will need to see that our governments are focused, that they will work together, and that point B is both within reach and a worthy destination.