Catherine McKenna says cutting emissions will take time as report shows rise

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is trying to lower expectations about when Canada's greenhouse gas emissions will finally begin to go down instead of up, following the release of the latest national report that shows Canada's emissions continuing to rise.

Environment minister says new targets are pointless without a plan for how to achieve them

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna talks to reporters on Tuesday after appearing before the environment committee to discuss carbon emissions. (Margo McDiarmid/CBC)

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is trying to lower expectations about when Canada's greenhouse gas emissions will finally begin to go down instead of up.

McKenna's department has just released its latest National Inventory Report showing greenhouse gases continued to rise in 2014 — hitting 732 megatons that year.

It means that Canada's emissions in 2014 were 20 per cent higher than they were in 1990 — the year Canada promised the world it would start cutting carbon pollution.

McKenna appeared before a parliamentary committee Tuesday, where she faced pointed questions over how the Liberal government will live up to its international promise to aggressively cut carbon emissions while the numbers continue to show they are steadily rising. 

"When will emissions start going down?" asked NDP MP Nathan Cullen.

McKenna said soon, but not right away. 

"I'm hoping as soon as possible," answered McKenna. "We had a government unfortunately for the last 10 years that did not make the necessary investments or create the market signals that are key to doing that. You can't bend a curve overnight." 

Heading to New York

McKenna pointed out that the Liberal government set up working groups in March to look at various proposals to tackle aspects of climate change. The provinces and territories will report back this fall to premiers and the prime minister, who will then come up a formal plan. 

McKenna is part of the Canadian delegation led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that is heading to New York to formally sign the Paris climate agreement on Friday. That agreement, reached in December, commits the world to keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees. 

MPs on the committee wanted to know how Canada can achieve that goal while relying on the targets set by the previous Conservative government. Former prime minister Stephen Harper promised the UN that Canada would cut carbon pollution 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

"When we go to New York and sign that commitment on Earth Day, we will be using Mr. Harper's targets that are woeful and inadequate in meeting our global commitments," pointed out Cullen.

Progress will be slow

Even the promises made by more than 150 countries in Paris won't keep temperatures down enough to prevent what scientists predict could be catastrophic climate change. So the agreement commits all countries to strengthen their targets as time goes by.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May wanted to know when the Liberal government would move beyond the old target set by the Conservative government — known in UN jargon as the "intended nationally determined contribution," or INDC, and bring in a new more aggressive one. 

"When will you move the old INDC out of the way, which you have referred to as the floor, and start getting us near a ceiling?" asked May.

Again McKenna said, it's going to take time.

"I don't think there's any point in putting out a new target and saying, 'Wow, we're great, we've got an ambitious target,' but once again we don't have a plan to get there. So while six months is not as fast as some would like, that is how you move forward in a thoughtful way."

In the meantime, she said, Canada will be part of the historic signing of the Paris agreement in New York. A record number of more than 150 countries will sign the agreement, said the UN. 

Canada is expected to formally ratify the climate agreement in Parliament by the end of the year.