Canada told world leaders Thursday it plans to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 45 per cent of 2005 levels within the next decade, ramping up its earlier promises without yet having a concrete path to the new goal.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the new target at a virtual climate summit with world leaders Thursday, convened by U.S. President Joe Biden. Canada had initially committed to a 30-per-cent reduction under the Paris Agreement.
“We must take action now because there’s no vaccine against a polluted planet,” Mr. Trudeau told the gathering of 40 world leaders.
The federal government has not yet revealed the policies that will ensure Canada reaches its new target, but Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said the plans his government has already introduced ensure Canada will cut its emissions by 36 per cent of 2005 levels.
At the summit Thursday, the U.S. President, Mr. Trudeau, and other world leaders warned of the approaching calamity of climate change and described the urgent need to act immediately to limit the planet’s warming. But the NDP and Green Party dismissed Canada’s new target as not strong enough, saying it falls short of the plans eyed by international allies.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole also rejected the new targets and said his party will commit only to the 30-per-cent goal previously agreed to in 2015. Green Party Leader Annamie Paul said Canada should target a 60-per-cent emission cut, while NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh suggested 50 per cent.
Models show the world is on track to blow past the commitment set out in the Paris Agreement to limit warming to as close to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels as possible, with a ceiling of 2 degrees.
The world is “racing toward the threshold of catastrophe,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, noting global temperatures have already risen 1.2 degrees.
“We see ever-rising sea levels, scorching temperatures, devastating tropical cyclones and epic wildfires,” he said.
Ahead of the summit, the European Union struck a deal to enshrine its 2030 goal to cut emissions by 55 per cent below 1990 levels. “This will be the ‘make or break’ decade for our climate,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the summit. “Science tells us it is not too late yet, but we must hurry up.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping said China will strive to ensure its carbon-dioxide emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060, and will “strictly control coal-fired generation projects” and limit the increase in coal consumption.
On Thursday, the United States committed to cut its emissions to half of 2005 levels within the decade. Despite Canada’s lower bar, John Kerry, the President’s special envoy on climate, congratulated the federal government on “a bold step that puts them on track to net-zero.”
The two countries also said they will co-operate on greening their government operations. The goal is to “leverage shared purchasing power to drive government operations to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions,” the announcement said. Mr. Wilkinson said Canada and the U.S. are also in talks to align policies on vehicle efficiency standards and methane-reduction measures.
Historically, Canada’s problem hasn’t been setting ambitious targets to slow climate change, but rather following through on them.
Last year, for the first time, the federal government released a climate-change plan with policies strong enough to meet its previous goal of cutting emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. This week’s budget also included policies that the government said will cut emissions by 36 per cent.
Mr. Trudeau’s government must now lay out specific plans that close the gap created with its new 45-per-cent target.
Mr. Wilkinson said the climate policies and programs already in place in Canada – including the price on carbon, restrictions on methane emissions and the clean fuel standard – get the country “the bulk of the way to our target.”
And while Canada’s goal doesn’t reach the U.S. plan to slash its emissions in half, Mr. Wilkinson said a 40- to 45-per-cent reduction is, “based on the structure of the economy, more ambitious than what the Americans are talking about.”
Asked why his government doesn’t aim higher and meet the bold numbers being proposed by other countries, Mr. Wilkinson said he’s “not interested in putting targets out there that we don’t think we can meet.”
“I think that does a disservice to Canadians, I think it does a disservice to politics,” he said.
The trajectory of Canada’s emissions and the rapid expansion its oil and gas sector since 2005 mean that Canada will need to implement tougher policies to meet its targets than what will be required in the U.S. to meet its higher target.
“We just need to work through this,” Mr. Wilkinson said when asked what the future looks like for Alberta’s oil sands. “It’s going to be a transition. Everybody recognizes that, and we need to get to the point where we’re not combusting carbon. That’s what net-zero means,” he said.
In a statement, Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon said his government wasn’t consulted about, nor made aware of the details of the new emissions-reduction goal before it was announced, adding, “targets do not mean much without a realistic plan to achieve them.”
He said Ottawa’s programs announced to date “are an order of magnitude too small” to support the clean hydrogen; carbon capture, use, and storage; and other technology investments needed to meet Canada’s goals.
Unlike the United States, Canada has already significantly decarbonized its electricity sector. That’s one of the reasons reaching its emissions targets will require tougher policies than those south of the border, said Andrew Leach, an associate professor at the University of Alberta. The expansion of the emissions-intensive oil and gas sector since 2005 makes Canada’s path to reaching its targets even more difficult, he said.
For example, he said the White House would come close to reaching a 30-per-cent drop in emissions below 2005 levels by 2030 with a $50-a-tonne carbon price, while Canada needs a $170-a-tonne carbon price to do the same.
Kathryn Harrison, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, said there are “limits to how much sympathy we can expect from other countries” for that.
“One of the reasons it’s more costly is that we allowed emissions to increase, virtually unchecked, from the oil and gas industry and profited accordingly,” she said.
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