Since Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister two years ago, Canada has been trying to rebuild its credibility on the climate-change file. Canada gave the 2015 Paris Agreement back-slapping support and has vowed to stay put even though its largest trading partner, the United States, has bolted in a cloud of coal soot. Catherine McKenna, Canada's tireless Environment Minister, is well liked among the countries that consider global warming a serious threat to the planet's health.
To be sure, the rebuilding effort could have succeeded under the guidance of a lobotomized squid, given how low Canada's climate-repair reputation had sunk under the Stephen Harper regime. For nine years, until he was turfed in 2015, Mr. Harper took a Neanderthal approach to climate change. At the 2009 Copenhagen climate-change conference, Canada was a laughingstock and regular winner of the "Fossil of the Day" award.
In spite of the goodwill generated by Mr. Trudeau and Ms. McKenna, it's too early to say that Canada has evolved from part of the climate-change problem to part of its solution. For decades, Canada's record in meeting emissions targets has been abysmal and it requires a leap of faith to assume that the existing and future commitments will be any different – all the more so since the Alberta oil sands, a monstrous source of carbon-dioxide emissions, will keep expanding.
To wit: The commitment made by Canada, in 2009, to reduce emissions by 17 per cent over 2005 levels by 2020.
In an interview in Rome this week, Ms. McKenna, fresh from the Group of Seven environment ministers' conference in Bologna, Italy, more or less confirmed that the Copenhagen target, which was apparently signed in good faith, is unachievable. "I think 2020 will be challenging to make," she said, using the politicians' clichéd term for impossible. "The 2020 target quite frankly is hard when you had a previous government [that] for a decade did nothing and emissions rose."
In this case, it seems reasonable to blame the previous government. But other countries might not see it that way. To them, Canada is about to blow yet another emissions target, so why won't the next target, and the target after that, be blown, too?
The Liberals' response is to airbrush the 2020 target out of the official literature and concentrate instead on the Paris commitment, in which Canada vowed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent over 2005 levels by 2030. That's a long way off and, remember, those targets are voluntary and can be ignored with no penalty other than international public humiliation. In effect, the 2020 target no longer exists, at least in the feds' minds, although you would think putting in a half-assed effort to meet it would make the 2030 target easier to achieve.
Canada's emissions-target record is a bad joke. In the 1988 Toronto atmospheric conference, an event lost in the smog of climate-change history even though it was hugely significant at the time, Canada and other big polluters agreed that emissions should be reduced by 20 per cent by 2005. Canadian emissions soared.
In the Harper years, Canada adopted an obstructionist approach to carbon-reduction measures even if it signed Copenhagen's 2020 pledge. In 2011, Mr. Harper retreated from the effort to prevent catastrophic global warming by pulling Canada out of the 1997 Kyoto Accord, which had bound Canada to reduce emissions to 6 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012.
Canada's official excuse was that Kyoto was a farce because the United States and China were not part of the accord. The reality was that relentlessly rising oil sands emissions meant that any national carbon-dioxide cuts were a fantasy.
Looking at the emissions output data, you would think that Canada has had little interest in cutting emissions. Canada's 2016 greenhouse-gas emissions report says that output of the gases (dominated by carbon dioxide) was 747 million tonnes in 2005. They are projected to be 731 million tonnes by 2020 and 742 million by 2030. In other words, the reduction over 2005 is negligible. The culprit is the oil and gas industry (which includes the oil sands), whose emissions are set to reach 233 million tonnes by 2030, up by more than a quarter over 2005.
To be sure, Mr. Trudeau's commitment to reducing emissions is better planned than any previous commitment. In includes buy-in from many of the provinces. Alberta has put a price on carbon and is capping oil sands emissions at 100 million tonnes a year by 2026. Coal-fired power stations are being phased out. Renewable energy is coming on strong and companies big and small seem to agree that cleaning up their acts can ultimately save money and even create jobs, a message lost on U.S. President Donald Trump. There is no doubt that the pan-Canadian emissions-reduction architecture is relatively robust.
But 2030 is probably three governments away and each new government has a nasty habit of blaming previous governments for dragging their heels and missing targets. The oil sands emissions cap is high enough that the industry can keep charging ahead and the Pembina Institute warned on Wednesday that freight emissions – truck, rail, air and marine – are growing, jeopardizing Canada's Paris commitment. It's wildly premature for Canada to declare itself one of the climate good guys.