Bold climate targets matter as Canada gears up for U.S. summit, but real action matters more

When it comes to climate policy, clean infrastructure investments are necessary but most emission reductions will come from a combination of carbon pricing and regulations, such as fuel, vehicle and power standards, write Merran Smith and Sarah Petrevan.
U.S. President Joe Biden, on screen to the left, listens as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers his statement in Ottawa during their teleconference on Feb. 23. Biden is hosting 40 world leaders at an international climate summit on April 22 and 23, where he has urged them to lay out how they 'will contribute to stronger climate ambition.' (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Merran Smith and Sarah Petrevan. Smith is the executive director and Petrevan is the policy director of Clean Energy Canada, a program at Simon Fraser University. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Joe Biden's bold vision for a cleaner, more sustainable U.S. economy has been making headlines for a year now, but despite the president's laudable ambition thus far, his boldest promise is still to come. Thursday's global Earth Day Summit will not only mark America's return to international climate conversations, it's expected the U.S. will increase its national climate target while encouraging other nations to follow suit.

This includes Canada, which has signalled that an increased climate target — potentially aiming for more than a 40 per cent reduction below 2005 levels by 2030 rather than the current 30 per cent — is in the cards.

More ambitious climate targets are worthy of celebration. But in the spirit of tempering optimism with realism, we must also remember what a climate target is not: actual climate action.

The long and hard work of meaningful climate action comes in the years that follow. Canada has been doing such work since it signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, while America's efforts were derailed under Donald Trump.

Biden's $2-trillion US infrastructure plan, which still needs congressional approval, begins a necessary course correction. It has a significant climate focus that includes $174 billion dedicated to winning the increasingly competitive electric vehicle market, alongside another $100 billion for transitioning America's electricity grids.

These are big numbers, and they could create big economic opportunities for well-positioned trading partners like Canada.

But like targets, stimulus spending alone is not a climate plan.

An electric vehicle is seen charging in Montreal. The province wants to put 1.5 million EVs on its roads by 2030. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

When it comes to climate policy, although clean infrastructure investments are necessary, most emission reductions will come from a combination of carbon pricing and regulations, such as fuel, vehicle and power standards.

Whether one looks to Canada or California, places that are already implementing their climate plans, you'll find the same thing: carbon pricing and regulations do the heavy lifting. Subsidies, like those in Biden's infrastructure plan, are vital in that they create jobs and support workers through a historic transition, but they cannot drive emissions down in line with climate targets.

So, if the U.S. and Canada announce updated climate targets on Thursday as expected, they will be doing so from very different vantage points.

In Canada's case, the road ahead will be more familiar, requiring increases to current measures and the implementation of the existing A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy plan.

For the United States, its new target will inform climate policy that's still at the starting line. Policy that could face congressional hurdles or supreme court challenges, something Canada's carbon price only recently finally overcame.

And much like a bespoke suit, America's climate plan will fit differently than ours.

Consider electricity: while a quarter of all U.S. emissions currently come from generating power, in Canada that share is just 8 per cent — and soon to be lower still, as Alberta rapidly phases out coal power in the next several years.

Indeed, Canada's 83 per cent emissions-free grid is one of the world's cleanest. And while that presents a number of competitive advantages, it also means Canada can't look to electricity to achieve the same emission reductions that the U.S. can.

A hydro tower against a blue sky.
A quarter of all U.S. emissions come from generating electricity, while in Canada that share is just 8 per cent. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Transportation, on the other hand, at a quarter of our national emissions, is one area where Canada is primed to excel. Since our electricity grid is already mostly clean, the vehicles we plug into it are additionally so.

How do we seize this advantage?

Proven solutions include a national zero-emission vehicle standard requiring automakers to sell more EVs in the country (as already exists in B.C. and Quebec), stronger fuel efficiency standards, and more focus given to electrifying commercial vehicles. In addition to cutting pollution, such measures would help drive Canada's EV manufacturing and supply chain ambitions.

While it will likely take more than this to meet an increased emissions target, these policies are both well-suited to Canada and represent real steps forward.

After all, though bolder climate commitments stemming from Thursday's summit certainly matter, it's economy-shifting climate action that matters more.


Merran Smith is the executive director of Clean Energy Canada, a climate and clean energy program within the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University. Clean Energy Canada works to accelerate Canada's clean energy transition by sharing the story of the global shift to renewable energy sources and clean technology.