Will this be the emissions target Canadians can take seriously?

Canada has never had a hard time setting targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The challenge has been to actually meet those targets.

People have a right to be skeptical — and accountability will be key

A person walks past a climate change-themed nature mural on Earth Day in Toronto on Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Canada has never had a hard time setting targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The challenge has been to actually meet those targets.

So you would be forgiven for casting a skeptical eye at the Liberal government's pledge to now aim for a reduction in Canada's emissions of 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 — a deeper cut than the 30 per cent reduction Canada has been promising to achieve since 2015.

But after 30 years of making international commitments and failing to live up to them, this country now has a plausible path to get to that previous target.

Climate change is a challenge that demands ambition. Some argue that Canada should be shooting for an even steeper decrease in emissions. But ambition needs to be matched with action and accountability.

"I come from the business world. I used to be a CEO. And what you do is you set out a plan and you actually deliver on the plan and then you set out new targets," Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson told CBC News ahead of Thursday's announcement.

"And then at the beginning of the year, sometimes you don't know fully how you're going to achieve those targets, but part of the target-setting exercise is to ensure that you're actually stretching. If you've ever read Jim Collins' book Built to Last, that's how successful companies often run their businesses, because if you actually are setting targets that you know can achieve from day one, you're probably not pushing yourself enough."

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announces new emissions targets

Trudeau announces new emissions targets

1 year ago
Duration 1:18
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to the U.S. Climate Summit on Thursday.

Collins is a proponent of companies setting what he calls "big, hairy, audacious goals."

A large part of the government's argument for setting a new target rests on its claim that it already has delivered a plan that would get Canada past the old 2030 target — and that this new target comes at a moment of rising ambitions for climate policy in Canada and abroad.

In 2015, when Justin Trudeau's government came to power, Canada's emissions were on track to increase by 12 per cent through 2030.

By the time the 2019 election rolled around, projections showed that — thanks to federal and provincial policies — Canada was on track to reduce emissions by 19 per cent below 2005 levels.

Last December, when the Trudeau government released an updated plan that included future increases to the federal carbon price, it projected that it could achieve a 32 per cent reduction by 2030. With this week's budget, it increased that projection to 36 per cent.

Policies still have to be implemented and it would be naive to imagine the next nine years will go perfectly smoothly. Plotting a path is easier than following it. But at least it's now possible to see a path.

What's more, the ground floor for Canadian climate policy may have been raised last week when Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole tabled a plan that — while debatable in its details and perhaps its commitment — both accepts the wisdom of pricing carbon and offers a realistic strategy to achieve a 30 per cent emissions reduction.

Not ambitious enough?

The fact that there is no solid plan yet to get to 40 or 45 per cent is no small detail, though the same could be said of every country that announced a new target this week. Skepticism might be warranted. Domestic or international politics might be at play here — though politics that leads to more ambitious action should be welcomed.

But there's a clear case for more ambition. And one way to make sure the new target isn't just another big number written down on a piece of paper is to ensure that someone is held accountable for pursuing it.

The Trudeau government has said that Canada, like other countries, should aim for net-zero emissions by 2050 but there are good reasons to move sooner rather than later — both in terms of avoiding emissions and in mitigating the cost of taking action.

Some will say that the Liberal target is not big, hairy or audacious enough. The Biden administration is promising a 50 per cent reduction, though any comparison between Canada and the United States must account for differences in both the source of emissions and the cost of reductions, not to mention the stringency of current policy.

And there's disagreement over what constitutes Canada's "fair share" of the emissions cuts required to keep further global warming close to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The Climate Action Network says that, based on Canada's situation and the circumstances of other countries, a fair share would be 60 per cent.

Holding the feds' feet to the fire

But even hitting the Trudeau government's new target range will be difficult. Climate experts described it on Thursday as a "very tall order" and a "big lift."

Either way, there is a real need for accountability this time. Catherine Abreu, executive director of the Climate Action Network, said the problem with past targets was a lack of accountability.

A youth climate protester holds a sign in downtown Toronto on Friday, March 19, 2021. (Sam Nar/CBC)

"For me, a huge takeaway from this whole conversation … is that Canada's failure in the past is not just a failure of ambition. It's a failure of climate governance," she said.

"And that's why improving or passing Bill C-12 [the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act] is so essential because it will set up that regular, formal process that not just this government, but all future governments will have to follow to set climate targets and set plans to meet them."

Abreu notes that Bill C-12, the government's climate accountability legislation, would require the government to produce a plan for meeting its 2030 target within six months of the bill's passage — and a review process would evaluate the country's progress toward that target.

Abreu said the bill should be amended to require that the government meet a 2030 target.

Climate change is a threat that imposes a moral imperative — and the political imperative may have become more urgent in recent years. But building out the reporting and accountability rules on those targets might ensure that no government is ever again able to set a target and then forget it.


  • This story has been updated from an earlier version that stated in 2019 Canada was on track to reduce emissions by 21 per cent below 2005 levels. The correct number is 19 per cent below 2005 levels.
    May 20, 2021 7:01 PM ET


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.


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