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Steam spills out of smoke stacks at a building in Toronto.ADRIAN WYLD/The Canadian Press

Eight years ago, at the annual United Nations climate conference, countries agreed to the landmark Paris Agreement. The goal is to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or, at worst, well below 2 C.

This year’s UN meeting, COP28 in the petrostate city of Dubai, opens with bad news. The planet is on track for 2.9 C of heating. Such a world would suffer an unrelenting litany of droughts, floods, fires, extreme heat. And it’s not some theoretical future. This year is the hottest on record. The average temperature increase was 1.4 C through the end of October. September hit 1.8 C. On Nov. 17, it was a frightening 2.07 C hotter than preindustrial times.

The Paris goal isn’t measured over a day, a few months or a year. It’s a long-term maximum, the far limit where the climate should stabilize. To already see such harbingers – rampaging forest fires in Canada – should spark greater collective action. Yet UN climate meetings have usually underwhelmed, as they fall short of lofty goals. Paris was an exception, the culmination of four years of talks, though the climate treaty has only managed to slow, rather than reduce, the burning of fossil fuels.

Among the main goals this year is a commitment to triple renewable energy by 2030. It may sound overly ambitious but the trajectory of clean power is on course to more than double. Also on the table is the thing everyone knows is necessary but has long resisted: a map to phase out fossil fuels.

Canada arrives in Dubai with its climate policies in turmoil, from a retreat on the carbon tax to losses in court over Ottawa’s jurisdictional overreach. Canada’s Paris goal is to cut emissions by 40 per cent by 2030. Ottawa says the country is on track for 34 per cent – but that’s optimistic. The strategy is full of holes, the Auditor-General’s environment commissioner concluded in November.

There are a lot of blanks to fill in. Key policies such as clean electricity remain in development and opposed by Alberta. The province this year halted development of its booming clean power sector, previously the leader in Canada, and Premier Danielle Smith declares “we will not be transitioning away from oil and natural gas.”

This provincial intransigence, to promote fossil fuels and hinder clean power, makes Ottawa’s job more difficult. Court rulings this fall have counselled co-operative federalism, and as much as some blame should be pinned on Ottawa, Alberta’s resistance to change is myopic and unhelpful.

There are, however, some shared goals. Reducing potent methane emissions is one. Ottawa plans to announce rules to cut methane emissions in oil and gas by 75 per cent by 2030, a policy in the works for two years. Alberta this week said it estimates its oil industry methane emissions are down 45 per cent. Assessing these numbers is somewhat difficult, as historical figures have been revised upwards in recent years. It makes current declines look better – but, in general, important progress is being made.

Ottawa may also announce the first draft of rules to cap emissions in oil and gas. This space has advocated for a strengthening of the industrial carbon tax, rather than a new complicated regime specific to a single sector. Whatever the method, if Canada is to get anywhere near its climate targets, emissions in the oil business need to plunge.

Ottawa and Alberta this week officially moved forward on massive subsidies for carbon capture, $12-billion from Ottawa and $5-billion from Alberta. But the technology, still untested on a broad scale, is not a cure-all. The International Energy Agency warned of “excessive expectations and reliance” on carbon capture. “It is not a way to retain the status quo,” the IEA said. Canada needs to prepare for declining demand for its No. 1 export, expected to begin later this decade. Based on countries’ climate promises, the IEA forecasts oil demand could fall upwards of 10 per cent by 2030.

With all the policy blanks to fill in, stricter rules on methane will help address one big hole in Canada’s emissions-reduction puzzle. A draft plan to reduce oil emissions is also key – but politically and economically fraught. The prospects for federal clean power rules are in limbo. Too many essential policies are still conceptual, never mind the court fights that could follow.

There are two truths: Canada has a lot of good ideas in its climate playbook but it’s been arduous to turn them into a durable reality. Ottawa, supported by the provinces, must make more progress – fast.

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