The Liberals' 'net-zero' carbon pledge: more action and more fights

Canada remains a long way from meeting its 2030 greenhouse gas reduction targets under the Paris Agreement, but adopting an even more ambitious goal for 2050 might actually be the best way forward, say experts and environmentalists. 

Climate activists read the promise with cautious optimism

A huge thermometer mounted on a wall of the headquarters of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change shows a temperature of 42 degrees Celsius in Bonn, Germany this past July. Justin Trudeau's Liberals are promising to make Canada carbon neutral by 2050 if re-elected, to help limit global warming. (Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters)

Canada remains a long way from meeting its 2030 greenhouse gas reduction targets under the Paris Agreement, but adopting an even more ambitious goal for 2050 might actually be the best way forward, say experts and environmentalists. 

In a series of campaign events on Wednesday, the federal Liberal Party rolled out a promise to commit Canada to net-zero carbon emissions —  meaning any greenhouse gases still produced would be offset — by 2050, if returned to power. Similar pledges have already been made by 65 other nations and the European Union, all of them spurred by last year's findings from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that global heating needs to be limited to 1.5 degrees C, instead of the old two degree target, in order to avoid the worst effects. 

This despite the fact that even under the most-optimistic scenario, Canada is only two-thirds of the way to meeting its far-less-onerous 2015 pledge to reduce total emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by the end of the next decade. 

It's another hard turn from a government that sponsored a motion declaring a national climate emergency in June, then approved the expansion of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline the very next day. 

But climate change activists are greeting the promise with cautious optimism.

"The 2050 pledge is meaningful because you are kind of setting up the North Star," says Keith Stewart, a senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada. 

Following UK example

He is particularly heartened that the Liberals appear intent on following the same path that the United Kingdom has been on since 2008, enshrining carbon-reduction targets in law with five-year plans,and setting up an independent expert committee to advise the government on the best way to reduce the country's footprint — industry by industry, and sector by sector. 

Keith Stewart is a senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada (Jill English/CBC)

"It takes it from being the Liberal, or Conservative, or NDP target to being a Canadian target," says Stewart. "It's no longer a tribal thing."

A report issued last fall by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, part of the London School of Economics, found that the U.K.'s expert committee had helped both Labour and Conservative governments make headway on carbon-reduction goals. "The [committee] has made a material difference to the way climate policy is conducted in terms of objectives (the statutory carbon targets), process (impact on parliamentary debate) and substance (e.g. influencing new laws on energy, infrastructure, housing and water)," wrote the authors. 

Michal Nachmany, a research fellow at Grantham, where she tracks global climate laws and policy, says the combination of firm government targets and outside, independent advice on how to achieve them has made it easier to reach a consensus on greenhouse gas reduction. 

Sends a clear signal

"It sends out a very clear signal to actors — companies, investors, consumers — who need to make longer-term decisions," she says. "It provides certainty and that's really good for the economy."

And the legally binding targets seem to help protect governments from being sued over their lack of action — a growing trend since an environmental group won a landmark 2015 judgment against the Dutch government forcing it to adopt more ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets.

"So far, it seems to be riskier not to have a law than to have one," says Joana Setzer, another Grantham fellow who tracks such climate change litigation — 260 cases and counting across 27 countries (Canada accounts for 12 of them),  and another 922 suits against state and federal authorities in the United States.

The flipside, however, is that binding, national carbon emission targets could put Ottawa and the provinces on a collision course.

Clash with provinces likely

"The devil will be in the details, but this promise seems most likely to impact provincial (greenhouse gas reduction) frameworks," says Sander Duncanson, a Calgary partner with Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt, who specializes in environmental and regulatory law. 

To date, the provinces have largely been able to pursue their own strategies via cap-and-trade agreements, carbon taxes, and large emitter levies. Any move towards a "one-size-fits-all" approach is likely to be met with a "fair amount of resistance" from the provinces and industry, notes Duncanson.

And even if the Liberals win re-election and turn their promise into law, that won't necessarily stop a future government from reversing course, as Doug Ford did when he became Ontario premier, passing a law to kill a cap-and-trade climate plan that had been adopted under Kathleen Wynne.

What is clear is that meeting Canada's current 2030 greenhouse gas reduction target — let alone the more ambitious 2050 pledge — will require heavy lifting, with lots of investment and sacrifice, regardless of which party is in power.

"The low hanging fruit has been picked. Cheap and easy is gone," says Greenpeace's Stewart. "Now, we have to do the hard things."


Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.

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