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Canada's Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Feb. 24, 2020.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

New climate targets and programs to cut Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are being delayed as the federal government’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic sidelines other work, and physical distancing frustrates program consultations.

More stringent emissions-reduction targets for 2030 and the plan to meet them were supposed to be released this year, in advance of the next international climate change meetings. With the gathering postponed to 2021, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told The Globe and Mail the new targets will also be delayed.

“Everything has been pushed back a little bit," Mr. Wilkinson said. He added that the government is committed to updating the plan, but "whether that is late this year or early next year, we haven’t sorted that out.”

2020 was to be the year of ambition on climate change, but instead it’s taking a back seat to the urgent demands of the novel coronavirus health emergency and resulting economic crisis. The delays come after Canada’s announcement in April that its emissions increased by 15 megatonnes in 2018 to 729 megatonnes.

Canada’s current emissions targets aren’t stringent enough to meet the international commitment to limit warming to 1.5 C to 2 C and if Canada waits to update its targets in 2021 it would be offside of the Paris Agreement, said the Green Party’s Elizabeth May.

On top of updating the short-term targets, the Liberals were set to appoint an expert panel before the summer to advise on reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and table legislation to enforce five-year climate targets. Both are delayed, but the government didn’t provide a new timeline.

The government maintains that addressing climate change is still a priority, and it has included climate change incentives in some of its financial response to the pandemic. Among the factors stymieing progress are the difficulties holding public consultations and the federal cabinet’s almost singular focus on the novel coronavirus, meaning other items aren’t getting on the agenda, sources said. And the cabinet committees, which are responsible for much of the government’s decision-making, have also been suspended while the government responds to the immediate crisis.

“Along with COVID-19, cabinet continues to discuss many important issues,” spokesperson Alex Wellstead said in a statement.

The Prime Minister’s Office wouldn’t say when the cabinet committee work will resume, but a source said their return is under consideration. The Globe is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

So far, the delays amount to a few months to half a year, but climate change researchers and advocates worry that they are the first step in a pattern often repeated in the past 50 years. Climate issues reached the top of the public’s priority list in 1969, 1989, and in 2007-08, and in each case economic downturns knocked them down the list, said Kathryn Harrison, a University of British Columbia professor who studies climate and energy policy.

It’s “pretty worrying” in particular for a country like Canada, which has a history of promising action on climate change, but failing to follow through, Prof. Harrison said. But the pandemic’s ultimate impact on climate change is still unclear, she said. While the response to the virus is eating into the already limited time government’s have to act on climate change, the economic hit has also led to a temporary cut to emissions.

If the drop in GDP holds for the rest of 2020, then emissions could be down by 9.5 per cent compared with pre-COVID-19 projections, according to Dave Sawyer, the chief economist for the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices.

Other unknowns include COVID-19′s lasting impact on things such as air travel and public-transit use, and the effect of government stimulus spending.

While it’s understandable that the government is seized by its response to COVID-19, the opposition parties note that the Liberals had four years to finalize their climate plans before the pandemic hit. NDP MP Laurel Collins said she expects the Liberals to give more clarity on when delayed programs will be implemented.

The Conservatives said the Liberals should hold off on some initiatives because of the pandemic but, other than repeating their call to scrap the carbon tax, didn’t specify which ones.

The Liberal promise to plant two billion trees by 2030 was already under an intense time crunch before the pandemic hit. In February, Beth MacNeil, the assistant deputy minister responsible for the plan, told The Globe that she hoped to have deals in place this year, because it takes two years from ordering to when a seedling is ready for planting.

Because of the pandemic, the Natural Resources department said it couldn’t say when the program will roll out and it declined to say whether any deals have been struck with the private sector or other governments to finance the plan.

The Liberals also pledged to protect 17 per cent of land and inland water by 2020. As of last year, 12 per cent had been protected, and the Environment department did not provide an update this week on whether the target will be met.

Also citing the pandemic, the Transport department said it couldn’t provide a timeline for the release of the plan to meet its zero-emissions vehicle targets, it’s first benchmark in that plan is less than five years away.

The pandemic has also prompted Ottawa to extend reporting deadlines for the national pollutant release inventory, the greenhouse-gas-emissions reporting program, and the output-based pricing system (Ottawa’s industrial carbon-tax which is applied in provinces where there is no equivalent program). The federal government has not yet determined how the revenues from the tax on major emitters will be returned to companies, a decision that was also delayed by COVID-19. But a federal source said companies will not be charged under the tax until that has been decided.

The draft regulations for the Greenhouse Gas Offset System, an emissions credits trading program, have been delayed to the fall. And there is no new timeline for the Strategic Assessment of Climate Change, which will set out how federal impact assessments should consider a project’s greenhouse gas emissions, it was supposed to be finalized early this year.

The Environment department said the consultations for Ottawa’s single-use plastics ban were extended because of COVID-19, but there is no change to the overall timing for the ban, the rules for it are set to be in place by 2021.

Even the future of the carbon tax remains inconclusive. The Supreme Court was supposed to hear the case against it this past March, but it was delayed because of the pandemic and is tentatively set for September.

With reports from Kelly Cryderman in Calgary and Emma Graney in Edmonton

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