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Donald Trump, seen here on Jan. 7, 2020, and his administration were already in the process of backtracking on the Obama plans when the Canada Energy Regulator published its outlook in mid-2018.

The Associated Press

In the Harper era, Canada’s international reputation on climate change was not good. Environmental groups routinely handed Ottawa a “Fossil of the Year” award for its inaction on climate action.

Canada is now a climate-policy leader, at least on paper, but that has not conjured an instant transformation.

Our country remains among the world’s top 10 emitters of climate-heating pollution. A big reason why is the vehicles Canadians drive: too many trucks and too many SUVS – all burning too much gasoline. An International Energy Agency report last year showed the fleet of new vehicles in Canada had the worst fuel efficiency in the world, at 8.9 litres every 100 kilometres.

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It was supposed to get better, and quickly. A report in July, 2018, from the Canada Energy Regulator said planned fuel-efficiency improvements would see trucks and SUVs in Canada get less than 6 litres every 100 km by 2025, and cars trend toward 4 litres.

These would be major gains. The report, however, came with an asterisk. It may have well been stamped: Beware Donald Trump.

The U.S. President has long railed against fuel-efficiency goals set by his predecessor, Barack Obama, at about 5.2 litres every 100 km by 2025.

The Trump administration was already in the process of backtracking on the Obama plans when the Canada Energy Regulator published its outlook in mid-2018. A month later, the U.S. government issued its official notice to abandon increased standards.

Canada now has a big decision to make. The country typically shares fuel-efficiency standards with the United States, a facet of the integrated North American automotive market. But Mr. Trump has upended the process. To go with his weakened rules would abandon an important plank in Canada’s climate plan. But choosing higher standards could roil Canada’s auto business.

If Canada chooses higher standards, it would not be alone. California and a group of U.S. states are fighting for stricter fuel standards of about 5.6 litres every 100 km by 2026, relatively close to the Obama goal. Canada combined with California and the other states would amount to about 40 per cent of the North American auto market. Some automakers, such as Ford and BMW have sided with California; others, such as General Motors and Toyota, are with Mr. Trump.

The Trudeau government has leaned toward the California side of the debate. Canada signed a memorandum of understanding with the state last June, and Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson recently said there is an opportunity to be “ambitious” by working with California.

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A final decision looms, although there could still be breathing room. The new U.S. regime was supposed to be released half a year ago. Then it was to be by the end of 2019. The finalized rules are now expected to arrive soon.

Fuel efficiency is an important part of lowering Canada’s emissions. The latest tally of emissions from light-duty cars, trucks and SUVs was 81 megatonnes in 2017. That’s the same as from the oil sands, on which the climate spotlight shines far more than Canadians’ daily commute.

As Ottawa faces the decision on fuel efficiency, it’s pushing ahead on a world-leading clean-fuel standard – another important plank in Canada’s climate plan.

The rules take effect in 2022 and 2023, and call for a reduction of the carbon intensity of most fuels by about 10 per cent by 2030. This could cut 30 megatonnes from Canadian greenhouse gas emissions.

To put effort into a new clean-fuel standard, but yield on fuel efficiency, makes little sense. Lower-carbon fuel will come at a cost, and to burn it needlessly is foolish.

It’s a mistake to do anything other than stick with the plan to raise fuel-efficiency standards. There are valid concerns about the risk of breaking with the Trump administration, and the Trudeau government does need to be wary of harming the auto sector.

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There’s no need to rush into anything, though, and the situation in the U.S. is in flux, in particular because the November presidential election could remake the landscape.

But the bottom line is that higher fuel-efficiency standards are critical to reducing emissions. Now is not the time to back down. Canada has an opportunity to drive for better results and should resist pressure to settle for less.

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