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May says Canada’s 2020 emission-reduction targets out of reach

Suncor Energy Inc. base plant near Fort McMurray, Alberta. Green Leader Elizabeth May hopes to work with the new government to make Canada a climate-policy leader.

Brett Gundlock/Bloomberg

The Conservatives' target to reduce carbon emissions in Canada is out of reach because the Harper government failed to enact any measures to achieve them, but a new government would almost certainly be more aggressive, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said on Thursday.

"Stephen Harper made a personal commitment [at a United Nations summit] in Copenhagen and put not a single thing in place to achieve that commitment," Ms. May told The Globe and Mail's editorial board. "I don't think there's any reason to think that Stephen Harper has any intention on climate other than to have some plausible talking points."

The Green Party Leader hopes that either the Liberals or New Democratic Party will lead a new government in a formal or informal coalition, with backing from her party.

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She said either the Liberals or NDP would provide a marked improvement over the Conservatives on the climate issue, and could make Canada an international leader in crafting an ambitious agreement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December, instead a negative force.

Her comments on the government's 2020 emissions target were echoed by Simon Fraser University professor Mark Jaccard, one of the country's leading analysts on climate policy.

In leaders' debates, Mr. Harper has boasted that Canada's emissions are now lower than they were in 2005 before he took office, saying his government was the first to see a reduction in greenhouse gases (GHGs). At the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, he revisited his original 2020 promise, and matched the U.S. commitment to cut carbon emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 – a goal that Prof. Jaccard said is now essentially out of reach.

In a report released on Thursday, the SFU professor concludes that it was not federal action that reduced GHGs, but instead the recession of 2008-09, British Columbia's carbon tax and Ontario's effort to phase out coal-fired power.

"The 2020 target is now unachievable without great harm to the Canadian economy," he said.

Prof. Jaccard has a long history of issuing "report cards" on federal climate policy, and frequently attacked the former Chrétien Liberal government for failing to regulate carbon emissions. In the report on Thursday, he gave the Harper government a "failing grade."

Provinces and countries around the world are making commitments to ambitious climate action, including carbon-price plans that the Conservatives deride as ineffective revenue grabs.

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Ontario is joining Quebec and California in a carbon-emission trading system, while Alberta is preparing to announce its own climate strategy, with the aim of winning some credibility ahead of Paris.

A study released on Thursday by the United Nations-based Global Commission on the Economy and Climate said support for carbon pricing is building in the private sector, including multinational oil companies and global manufacturers. China has committed to start a national cap-and-trade plan in 2017.

"A strong, predictable and rising explicit carbon price – applied through policies appropriate to the national context, including carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems – can send important signals across the economy, helping to guide consumption choices and investments towards low-carbon activities and away from carbon-intensive ones," the commission said.

It cites British Columbia's $30-per-tonne carbon tax as an example where emissions were reduced but the economy continued to grow.

The report also calls on governments to phase out subsidies – including tax breaks – to fossil-fuel producers, calling them a "negative carbon price." Federal and provincial governments do provide incentives for oil and gas companies to explore and produce, and Ottawa has extended a writeoff to liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities to encourage that industry in British Columbia.

"On the one hand, we're trying to put carbon prices in place, but at the same time for the same fuels, we're actually subsidizing it, so these just counteract each other," Helen Mountford, the commission's program director, said in an interview. "Moving away from the subsidies is definitely a priority."

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