Trudeau's claim that Canada is 'on track' to meet 2030 climate target is misleading

There is still time for Canada to meet its Paris Agreement commitment, but it would require ramped-up climate change policies.

It's possible to meet 2030 emissions reduction goal, but Canada is not currently on course

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has put climate change promises at the centre of his re-election campaign. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

As part of our federal election coverage, CBC News is assessing the truthfulness and accuracy of statements made by politicians and their parties.

The Claim: "Canada is on track to reduce our emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005 levels."

— Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on his government's efforts to fight climate change

The Facts:

In late 2015, Canada and 194 other countries adopted the Paris Agreement, which aims to hold the global average temperature increase to well below 2 C above pre-industrial levels, with the ultimate goal of limiting the rise to only 1.5 C.

As part of that multinational consensus, Canada committed to reducing its annual greenhouse gas emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 — a level first set by Stephen Harper's Conservative government.

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On the campaign trail this week, Trudeau repeatedly said his Liberals have put Canada "on track" to meet that target and are now promising to exceed it.

But reports issued by his own government undermine that claim.

Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) regularly publishes updates on the country's progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In January, the department projected that even under a best-case scenario — one that takes into account policies already in place and those that are "under development but have not yet been fully implemented" — our total emissions in 2030 will only be 19 per cent below 2005 levels.

In other words, all the climate-related policies that were on the table as of January this year would get us 63 per cent of the way to the 2030 target.

Climate change and energy experts are quick to point out that projections, while valuable predictive tools, are not necessarily representations of the future.

The accelerating pace of technological advancement and the possibility that federal governments will adopt more aggressive climate change policies mean that Canada could end up meeting or even surpassing its 2030 target.

And Liberal candidates like to point to measures in the 2019 federal budget — such as a $5,000 electric vehicle incentive — that have not been factored into the most recent projections. Similarly, the Trudeau government helped to fund up to 1000 green energy projects across Canada, many of which will not be operational before 2022 or 2023 but will contribute to emissions reductions. 

As things stand, however, even the most optimistic outlook relies on what the government calls "emerging and future" reductions — in other words, policies and technologies that don't yet exist.

Kathryn Harrison, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, said that until more details emerge on the policies a re-elected Liberal government might pursue, Trudeau's claim that we are on track to meet our 2030 goal is "misleading."

"The Liberals haven't put meat on the bones yet. They haven't told us, specifically, what are those measures and what are the reductions that will be accomplished by them," said Harrison, who is also a chemical engineer.

Net-zero pledge

Harrison said she was somewhat surprised when, on Tuesday, the Liberal campaign said that it would commit Canada to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. The announcement came a day after the United Nations climate summit, where more than 65 other countries made the same pledge.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the net-zero commitment is needed to reach the aspirational goals of the Paris Agreement and prevent catastrophic environmental consequences.

It is an ambitious target and it's not yet clear how any country could get there — because it has never been done before.

When pressed for specifics on what a re-elected Liberal government would do, Liberal candidate and Trudeau environment minister Catherine McKenna punted.

"Do we have all the details? No," McKenna said at the announcement. "We're going to figure this out, but the first thing we need to do is we need to get through this election."

She also listed off a host of policies the Trudeau government implemented during its mandate, including the pan-Canadian framework on climate change that includes a price on carbon — considered by many economists to be the most effective way to curb emissions.

Harrison said that a commitment to net-zero emissions is laudable but it's "a bit cynical" for the pledge to come in the middle of an election campaign.

"Especially for a government that doesn't have a concrete plan in place to meet its 10-year target," she said. 

Verdict: Misleading

Sources: Canada's Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollutants Emissions Projections, 2018, Environment and Climate Change CanadaCanada sets carbon emissions reduction target of 30% by 2030, CBC NewsProgress towards Canada's greenhouse gas emissions reduction target, Environment and Climate Change CanadaSummary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate ChangeClosing the gap: carbon pricing for the Paris target (Revised June 20, 2019), Parlimentary Budget Officer; Climate Action TrackerUN report on global warming carries life-or-death warning, CBC News


Lucas Powers

Senior Writer

Lucas Powers is a Toronto-based reporter and writer. He's reported for CBC News from across Canada. Have a story to tell? Email lucas.powers@cbc.ca any time.

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