The federal government has promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly by 2020, but it has not put the regulatory framework in place to achieve that goal, environmental groups and economists say, responding to the report of Canada's environment commissioner.

So far, only two regulations are in place for the transportation sector, while regulations for the electricity sector aren't expected to take effect until 2015 and no regulations are in place for oil and gas.

When it comes to the federal government's plans for curtailing GHG emissions, environmental economist David Sawyer half-joked that the Conservatives should take a lesson from their controversial omnibus budget bill, which seeks to roll dozens of far-reaching changes into one 400-page piece of legislation.

"They could roll a lot of stuff up together and get it moving," said Sawyer, director of  climate change and energy for the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

Sawyer's comments followed Tuesday's report from Canada's environment commissioner, which said that the government's "sector-by-sector" approach to regulate emissions lacks an overall implementation plan. With many regulations still not developed, it's unlikely the government will meet its 2020 GHG reduction targets, the report concluded.

"When the commissioner's office says 'look, we don’t think the government is going to achieve their targets with the current sector-by-sector regulatory approach,' chances are they are not going to meet the targets," Sawyer said.

"Regulations take a long time to develop, regulations take a long time to implement and it takes a long time for them to bind or take effect.

"And when you’re doing them one piece at a time, on an issue that cuts across so much of the national economy, one would expect it would be a challenge to roll everything out in time," Sawyer said.

Delayed regulations

The government has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.

But the commissioner, pointing to Environment Canada's own forecast, shows that Canada's emissions in 2020 will instead be 7.4 per cent above 2005 levels.

Part of the delay, as the commissioner states, is that regulations can take up to five years to develop.

In the transportation sector, which accounts for 22 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, the only two regulations in place are those for renewable fuels, which project GHG reductions of between two to three million tonnes, and for passenger automobile and light trucks (9-10 million tonnes).

Regulations for marine vessels, airplanes and new on-road heavy-duty vehicles are still in the development stage, while rail and off-road vehicles are just at the conceptual stage.

The oil and gas sector, the second-highest emitter, responsible for 21 per cent of Canada's GHG emissions in 2005, has no regulations in place, though proposals are expected by December of this year.

In the electricity sector, which accounts for 17 per cent of emissions, regulations for coal-fired electricity plants have been proposed, but they are not expected to take effect until 2015.

And even here, regulations will affect new and existing plants when they reach the age of 45 years, meaning if they don't meet performance standards by then, they would have to close. But 34 of the 47 plants affected would not be subject to those performance standards until after 2020. 

And any newly built plant in operation before the proposed regulations take effect would not be required to meet them for 45 years.

"A new plant constructed before this date would contribute significant emissions by 2020 because an average 500-megawatt coal-fired plant emits about three million tonnes of GHG per year," the report stated.

Regulations for what are called emissions-intensive trade-exposed industries, a category that includes cement, chemicals and iron and steel, are also only just at the conceptual stage.

The report states that Environment Canada has no overall implementation plan showing how federal departments and agencies will work together to meet the 2020 reduction targets.

Although emission reduction estimates have been provided for certain industries, there are no estimate reductions for each sector or a general description of the regulations needed in each of the identified sectors, the report says.

Without an implementation plan, the companies that will be regulated, as well as consumers and other levels of government, cannot plan and "lack a solid basis for knowing how to adjust technology and make formal investment decisions."

"The fundamental criticism there is that we're not on track to meeting the commitments, the promises the government's made to the Canadians and the world," said Matt Horne, of the Pembina Institute. "We’ve got to do a lot more if we have any chance of achieving that."

"It’s almost impossible to meet these targets based on the current approach."

Government says plan is working

Speaking to Evan Solomon on CBC News Network's Power & Politics Tuesday, the parliamentary secretary to the environment minister, Michelle Rempel, said the government was on track to meet its 2020 targets for greenhouse gas emissions.

"We're trying to work with each individual sector to come up with a plan that has measureable targets, measureable action, and also ensures that weren't not penalizing customers, that we're not penalizing the economy," Rempel said.

The parliamentary secretary also noted that the commissioner's report did not take into account regulations that are still forthcoming. 

The environment minister's office has dismissed Vaughan's conclusions, saying the analysis is based on emissions data from two years ago, not the most recent greenhouse gas inventory released last month.

"We're actually seeing a virtual stoppage, a virtual slowdown in growth of greenhouse gas emissions in this country while our economy is growing," Rempel said.