Opinion

Canada at COP26: A time for leadership

The upcoming UN conference provides a unique opportunity for Canada to become a world leader in climate policy, writes Thomas Gunton, the director of the Resource and Environmental Planning program at Simon Fraser University.

To meet climate objectives, Ottawa must set binding targets and eliminate subsidies to the oil and gas sector

Canada has made significant progress in strengthening its climate policies, but with UN reports warning that the world is on course for a temperature rise of 3 C, double the Paris goal of 1.5 C, more work needs to be done, writes Thomas Gunton. (NOAA)

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This column is an opinion from Thomas Gunton, a professor and founding director of the Resource and Environmental Planning program at Simon Fraser University. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The upcoming UN climate conference, combined with the recent election results, provide the Canadian government with a renewed mandate to tackle climate change.  

So where is Canada at on climate strategy?

The good news is that all the parties' election platforms made a strong commitment to addressing climate change and our evaluation shows that Canada has made significant progress in strengthening its climate policies with initiatives, including the new Emissions Accountability Act and higher carbon taxes, and the technologies exist to dramatically cut emissions.

The bad news is that Canada's record is near the bottom of the pack. Our emissions are the third highest per capita among developed countries and we have the second worst record in reducing emissions among the G7 nations.  

And the most recent UN Emissions Gap report warns that, even if all countries fully implement their proposed GHG reduction policies, the world is on course for a temperature rise of 2.7 C, almost double the Paris goal of 1.5 C.  Clearly, more work needs to be done.

The first component of a renewed effort is to ensure that Canada's climate targets are consistent with the Paris goals to limit global warming to between 1.5 and 2 C. According to the UN, this requires a reduction in GHG emissions of 45 per cent by 2030 and net zero by 2050. 

While there is a persuasive case that wealthy countries like Canada that have underachieved on climate reductions should have higher reduction targets, the Liberals' 2030 target of between 40 to 45 per cent is close to the UN goal.  

But as Canada's poor record in meeting past targets shows, targets mean nothing if you do not achieve them. Therefore, the next priority is to develop a plan that is independently verified to meet the targets and one of the steps in independent verification is to direct the Canadian Energy Regulator to model a net zero plan for Canada.  

(Pembina Institute)

The government's  forecasts show that the plan released in December 2020 and updated in the 2021 budget could reduce emissions by between 31 and 36 per cent, which is well short of  the 40-45 per cent target, and there is no plan to achieve the 2050 net zero target. Canada clearly needs to strengthen its plan. 

Although the specifics will vary from country to country, the International Energy Agency (IEA) provides an outline of a plan to achieve net zero that can be a guide for Canada.

The first key component of the IEA plan is to decarbonize the transportation sector by adopting a 60 per cent zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) sales mandate for new cars by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2035, as well as a 50 per cent ZEV mandate for heavy duty vehicles by 2035. 

Transportation accounts for 26 per cent of Canada's emissions, so decarbonizing this sector is a priority. The Liberal transportation targets are generally consistent with the IEA proposals. However, there are several serious gaps.  

Binding mandates needed

First, we lack legally binding national ZEV sales mandates to achieve these targets. The federal government announced its intention to do this for car sales, but needs to implement this commitment and extend the legislated mandate to heavy duty vehicle sales as well. 

The second component of the IEA plan is to decarbonize the electricity sector by 2035. Both the Liberals and NDP have committed to this (the NDP by 2030). But our evaluation concluded that decarbonizing electricity is impeded by the replacement of coal with natural gas. The electricity sector can only be decarbonized if coal is replaced by renewables and any natural gas needed for back-up is carbon neutral.

A third component of the IEA plan is for all new buildings to be zero carbon ready by 2030 and 50 per cent of existing buildings be zero carbon by 2040, rising to 85 per cent by 2050. Here again the platforms of the Liberals and NDP are generally consistent with the IEA plan, but the plans for achieving these targets lack necessary details.

The fourth component of the IEA plan is to immediately prohibit development of any new oil and gas fields and coal mines. This is arguably the most challenging area for Canada, given the economic significance and political influence of the fossil fuel sector and the fact that it accounts for just over one-quarter of Canada's emissions.  

(Pembina Institute)

The Liberal platform promises action, including banning thermal coal exports and new regulations to reduce methane emissions by 75 per cent by 2030. But the overall climate strategy for the oil and gas sector is vague, featuring phrases such as "make sure that the oil and gas sector reduces emissions at a scale and pace to achieve net zero by 2050." There is no plan to get there and no commitment to follow the IEA strategy to prohibit the expansion of new oil and gas fields.  

More distressing is that the government has been supporting the expansion of the oil and gas sector by providing $23 billion of financial support for new fossil fuel pipelines such as the Trans Mountain Expansion.  

As this month's UN Production Gap report warns, these policies to expand the fossil fuel sector are inconsistent with the goal to achieve net zero by 2050 and it is critical "that fossil fuel production start declining immediately and steeply to be consistent with limiting long-term warming to 1.5 C."

Therefore, to meet its climate objectives, it is critical that the government set binding targets and eliminate subsidies for the oil and gas sector as well as halt development of major fossil fuel infrastructure projects. 

A just transition

Another essential component of a climate strategy is a just transition that protects the most vulnerable from any adverse impacts of climate change and climate policies and addresses reconciliation with Indigenous communities. 

This requires passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in all Canadian jurisdictions as well as comprehensive transition strategies for workers in sectors such as oil and gas and income support measures for those negatively impacted by policies such as the carbon tax.

The platforms of the Liberals and NDP commit to these strategies and the Canadian government has been returning most of the carbon tax revenue back to Canadians, but more detailed strategies are required to ensure a just transition.  

A final priority is climate adaptation. Even if we are successful in meeting the Paris climate goals, the world will still experience significant climate change consequences. Therefore, Canada needs to prioritize development of comprehensive climate adaptation plans that identify the risks and develop policies to mitigate the consequences. Some work has been done in climate adaptation planning, but as the recent heat dome impacts and associated deaths show, we are ill prepared for the coming changes.

Climate change is without question an existential crisis that requires urgent action. The election of a minority government with a strong commitment to addressing climate change and the upcoming UN conference provide a unique opportunity for Canada to become a world leader in climate policy. Let's hope the opportunity is not lost.


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Clarifications

  • A previous version of this article included a figure representing government subsidies to the oil and gas industry that included COVID-related subsidies. That number has been removed for clarity.
    Nov 22, 2021 2:19 PM ET

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Thomas Gunton is a professor and founding director of the Resource and Environmental Planning program at Simon Fraser University and a former deputy minister of environment for B.C. He recently completed a major evaluation of climate policy with the Pembina Institute.

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