Manitoba will join Ontario, Quebec and California in introducing a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but not everyone is sure if the provincial government's plan will work.

Premier Greg Selinger unveiled plans for the cap-and-trade system, which would make big emitters of greenhouse gases pay for carbon, as part of the province's plan to battle climate change.

He also set a target of reducing carbon emissions, saying the province will aim to reduce greenhouse gases by one-third by 2030 — within 15 years — and be carbon-neutral by 2080.

Selinger said climate change is being felt in Manitoba through an increase in major floods and forest fires, and the delayed freeze-up of ice on Hudson Bay, which is needed by polar bears to get out and hunt seals.

"We still have people trying to get home from the flood of 2011 and rebuild communities on a higher, safer level," he said at the University of Winnipeg's Richardson College for the Environment and Science on Thursday.

"All of those weather events are becoming more severe, more intense and more frequent, and they're costing us billions of dollars to address."

Selinger added, "This is one of the defining issues of our time. It's an issue that has been growing for years and we've been slowly building our awareness of what needs to be done. Why has that awareness become larger? Because it's real and it impacts all of us, one way or the other."

Selinger announced the province's climate change plan before he joins other world leaders in Paris for the United Nations' COP21 climate change conference.

The plan has already received praise from Al Gore, the former U.S. vice-president turned environmental activist.

2nd pledge in recent years

It's the second time that Selinger's NDP government has tried to set an emissions-reduction target.

In 2011, the province admitted that it failed to meet its Kyoto emissions-reduction pledge, which it had enshrined in law three years earlier.

In 2008, the province passed a law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to roughly 17,500 kilotones by 2012. However, in 2013 emissions peaked at more than 21,400 kilotones. 

Infographic: Manitoba greenhouse gas emissions

This infographic shows the level of greenhouse gas emissions in Manitoba over the years. (CBC News Graphics)

"I know what the media will say. They'll say, 'Well geez, you didn't quite make it last time. What makes you think you can do it this time?'" Selinger said.

But this time around, the premier said the province is already doing well because of its reliance on "green" resources such as hydroelectricity.

But the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition says it's cautious about the province's latest promises, and time will tell if there will be any significant improvements.

"It's better than nothing. We're starting to see movement and a change in conversation all around Canada about really digging in on getting our greenhouse gas reductions," said Alex Paterson, who speaks for the coalition.

"But what matters is whether or not we eliminate almost all — like, maybe two gigatonnes across the whole world — by 2100."

What is cap-and-trade?

Generally speaking, cap-and-trade is a system that sets a maximum allowable level of pollution and issues permits to companies specifying how much carbon they may emit per year and then penalizes them if they exceed their limit.

If a company wants to emit more than its limit, it must buy extra permits from companies that are under-emitting their cap — in other words, they can trade permits, putting the "trade" in cap-and-trade.

Under the province's plan, the 19 biggest polluters will face a cap on emissions, and will be able to buy and sell carbon "room."

The four largest emitters in Manitoba account for about seven per cent of emissions in the province.

Infographic: Manitoba's largest greenhouse gas emitters

This infographic shows who Manitoba's largest greenhouse gas emitters are and how much they're emitting. (CBC News Graphics)

However, Paterson said Manitoba should stay away from allowing emission offsets and carbon credits if it really wants to reduce greenhouse gases.

"We think this system will be unfair and be to the benefit of large emitting industries if carbon credits and offsets are part of that system, so we categorically reject offsets and carbon credits as part of this system," he said.

Selinger said the province will consult with businesses to ensure the cap-and-trade system is fair and prevents larger companies from gobbling up emissions "room" from smaller businesses.

"We've looked at the Quebec experience; there are lots of nuances. We have to take the time to go out there," he said.

In addition to the cap-and-trade system, the province says it will consult with other sectors on possibly introducing a "carbon stewardship" system for industries not covered by caps.

The province will create 6,000 green jobs in the next five years and enhance economic opportunities by 2020, Selinger said.

The premier stressed that Manitoba will not follow Alberta's lead and impose a tax on carbon.

"There's no question — I'm sensitive about that," Selinger told reporters.

Other parts of the plan

Manitoba's plan calls for the province to use more renewable resources to reduce greenhouse gases, including adopting green-heating alternatives to fossil fuels such as geothermal technology. Manitoba will also expand its Power Smart program to help people reduce their energy use.

The province will also partner with the City of Winnipeg to introduce curbside composting, electrify public transportation and expand active transportation, Selinger said.

Other initiatives include:

  • Expanding on nationally recognized green building standards.
  • Making government operations carbon neutral.
  • Investing in crucial infrastructure, from flood mitigation to adaptable transportation, in remote communities.
  • Working with indigenous partners to honour traditional ecological knowledge.

Partnerships have already been forged with the Manitoba Trucking Association, Keystone Agricultural Producers, National Farmers Union, universities and colleges, Economic Development Council for Manitoba Bilingual Municipalities and community organizations to implement the plan, Selinger said.

"It is our collective obligation to fight climate change to ensure a healthy environment and robust economy," said Selinger.

"We must do what we can to mitigate current risks while looking at ways to adapt to climate change. Delays will only make it more difficult and costly in the future."

Infographic: Gas consumption 1990-2013

(CBC News Graphics)

Infographic: Truck use, 1990-2013

(CBC News Graphics)

With files from The Canadian Press