Why Trudeau’s Commitment to Harper’s Old Emissions Target Might Not Be Such Bad News After All

On Sunday, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna announced that the federal government will stick with the previous government’s target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The news, delivered via an interview with CTV’s Evan Solomon, attracted a significant amount of criticism.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May described it as “nothing short of a disaster for the climate” and Press Progress suggested the news undermined election commitments and later statements by the Liberals.

Fair enough: McKenna had previously called the targets the “floor,” noting that “certainly we want to try to do better.” And in election materials, the Liberals stated: “We will work together to establish national emissions-reduction targets.”

Not exactly a broken promise, but some had hoped for more.

But here’s the thing: yes, the Liberals could have set a more ambitious target. And yes, to help keep global temperatures below two degrees of warming, they will need to in the future.

Tweet: So @JustinTrudeau’s using Harper’s old climate targets. But what matters is not setting a target, it’s meeting it http://bit.ly/2dkGU6LBut what matters is not setting a target — it’s meeting a target.

The two previous federal governments were nowhere near to meeting the targets they set, so Canada is working to catch up right now.

While setting a new, more ambitious target might have drawn positive headlines, it may well have set the country up for repeated failures.

Ultimately, policy experts are more concerned with the details that will be contained in the government’s upcoming climate plan.

“At the end of the day, as much as the goals and targets matter, what matters most is reducing emissions,” says Amin Asadollahi, the lead for climate change mitigation for North America at the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

“Measures matter more. Setting up a target and missing it misses the point.”

Clare Demerse, federal policy advisor for Clean Energy Canada, agrees.

“We have, in this country, a long history of having targets and a very short history of having actual plans to meet them. We have been in a situation where Canada has really established a credibility problem in terms of hitting targets. We need to fix that.”

Paris Agreement Requires Canada To Review Targets Every Five Years

The important and now reaffirmed climate target is a reduction of emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030; a recent paper from the Climate Action Network indicated that current measures will result in a 91 megatonne overshoot, so a lot is still going to have to change.

There’s also a goal in place to cut emissions in 2020 by 17 per cent, largely considered impossible given a decade of inaction by the federal Conservatives. And then there are the most distant goals of a 65 per cent reduction by 2050 and a G7 goal of full decarbonization by 2100.

The Paris Agreement, which hasn’t yet been ratified by Canada, will require each country to review targets every five years starting in 2018 and justify plans to the international community.

“Every five years, we’ll come back to the table and the international community will test this resolve as to whether it has the political will to put the world on a trajectory to avoid the worst impacts of climate change,” Asadollahi says.

And political will — inextricably linked to public acceptability — is what this is really about. Can the Liberals put in place a plan to meet the target and get re-elected?

2030 Target Tough, But Achievable

Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, says that meeting the 2030 target will be challenging but achievable, especially given Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s popularity and available political capital.

Plenty of options are on the table. A predictable price on carbon via a tax or cap-and-trade framework is considered the most important. McKenna has indicated the federal government will set a national price if provinces don’t take measures themselves, despite resistance from Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.

A new report, Is Win Win Possible? Can Canada Meet Its Paris Commitment … And get Re-Elected?, published on Tuesday by renowned climate policy analyst Mark Jaccard recommends a combination of a $40/tonne of carbon dioxide tax by 2030, accompanied by an array of flexible and industry-specific regulations.

Other measures could include an accelerated phase-out of coal, better building codes, fuel efficiency standards, energy efficiency measures, incentivizing a faster deployment of renewables and smart grids, support for electric vehicles and charging stations and better public transit.

Demerse notes that governments and industry often overestimate how difficult environment policy is going to be to implement.

“Once you get started and it becomes a conversation where you take the lobbyists out and unleash the engineers, you see all kinds of innovation,” she says. “That’s certainly been the story with clean energy, where we’ve seen the cost of clean energy fall very significantly.”

Let's Not Forget About Decarbonization

Stewart warns that such measures could be effective enough to meet 2030 targets, but would be undermined if the Liberals approve new pipelines and massively expanded oilsands production, which would lock in new greenhouse gas emissions for decades.*

As a result, he says it’s important to start working now towards decarbonization — meaning no further growth of the oilsands, as also recommended by Jaccard — which in itself would allow for the meeting of 2030 targets given oil and gas now contributes the most emissions of any sector in the country.

Stewart says that such decisions will require some “tough political fights” but that the federal government has all the tools it needs to make the big changes required.

“If you’re not forcing anyone to change their behaviour, you’re not actually changing any outcomes,” he says. “Thirty per cent by 2030 isn’t good enough. We have to go farther. And the Paris Agreement builds in a way to ratchet up that level of ambition.”

The next United Nations climate conference will take place in Marrakech, Morocco, from November 7 to 18. Given the successes at the last iteration in Paris, it’s likely that it will be a quieter affair. But Canada will need to have the ball rolling on a serious climate plan by that point, especially given its ambitions to land a UN Security Council seat.

“We haven’t seen the work they’ve been putting together,” Demerse says. “We know it’s going to be very political and not simple. We’re still in a wait and see mode. This is a process that can deliver but we don’t yet know what’s going to come out at the end of this.”

*Update Notice: Sept. 22, 2016, 10 a.m.: This article previously incorrectly stated that the Liberals could approve new pipelines and meet the 2030 targets.

Photo: Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and her chief of staff Marlo Raynolds, via the Pembina Institute.

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