Canada's past climate promises have been a flop. Could that change at this summit?

Canada's past climate promises have been a flop. Could this time be different? The U.S. is hosting a climate summit in a rapidly altering world, riven by geopolitical tension, changing technology, and a warming planet. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau used it to set a new target of 40-45 per cent emissions cuts.

U.S. hosts climate event at pivotal moment of rapid change. Canada promised here to exceed its Paris target

Trudeau is expected to announce Canada's new emissions target at a summit hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden, seen here at a virtual meeting in February. With a president who once again believes in climate change, the U.S. is aiming to open a new chapter in co-operation and competition to tackle it. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

We flopped with the climate targets set in Kyoto. We crashed and burned after Copenhagen. And we seemed destined to suffer the same plight after Paris. 

Canada is trying again. 

This time it's happening at a two-day virtual meeting of world leaders hosted by the new U.S. administration, where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set a new Canadian target Thursday of lowering emissions 40 to 45 per cent (from 2005 levels) by 2030.

The gist of what Trudeau would announce was foreshadowed in this week's federal budget: it said Canada is now on track to not only hit its previously announced target — 30 per cent — but exceed it due to newly introduced policies, including carbon pricing and funding for home retrofits.

Is this real? Is it possible that after making empty promises in far-flung destinations around the world, the place where Canada will actually announce a climate target it has a hope of achieving is an online meeting?

Andrew Leach, a climate economist at the University of Alberta, called the federal budget's projection of a 36 per cent reduction realistic.

"It's in the ballpark," Leach said. As for the new target announced Thursday, he said it's going to be hard to achieve and would need a few things to happen, including oil prices remaining low and new policy moves not only in Canada but also in the U.S.

This summit is intended as a turning of the page on global co-operation and competition.

A lot has changed since the Paris Agreement was forged in 2015: the U.S. left and came back, it's had two presidents with decidedly different views on climate change, there's an escalating rivalry with China, investment in clean technology has boomed — and the climate outlook has worsened.

Whether this next chapter of global climate policy is more successful than the last one may hold considerable stakes for the planet.

More extreme weather is just one consequence of human-induced climate change that has already been felt around the world. Here, massive waves break on the Sea Point promenade in Cape Town, South Africa on July 13, 2020, as weather services predicted gale-force winds and heavy rains brought flooding. (Nardus Engelbrecht/AP Photo)

The global picture: Not good

With emissions still drifting up, the United Nations has described the 2010s as a lost decade and said the planet has already warmed 1 C above pre-industrial levels.

It says 1.5 C in warming is likely, and 2 C will happen without a 25-per cent emissions cut this decade — meaning deeper damage to ecosystems and food access, worse storms, more animal extinctions and catastrophic ocean acidification.

The new U.S. administration has called climate change a top priority.

President Joe Biden is back in the Paris accord, has signed executive orders, and has proposed expensive clean-tech legislation

Now he's called other countries to this meeting to pressure them to do more.

"The expectation for all countries is that the ambition has to be increased immediately," a senior Biden administration official told reporters in a background briefing Wednesday.

"It's not, I think, a luxury that we've got to wait a decade before we start."

Biden announced a 50 per cent emissions cut for the U.S. by 2030, which is nearly double the target announced by former president Barack Obama. Biden's goal would represent a serious acceleration for his country, which so far has managed to cut carbon emissions about one percentage point per year since 2005.

Global emissions have continued drifting up. The UN says increasingly steep, likely impossible, cuts would have to happen to hold global temperatures to 1.5 C warming, and says the world needs to act swiftly to avoid catastrophic warming of 2 C over pre-industrial levels. (CBC News)

What countries are announcing

There's no guarantee Biden's big promises on the global stage will be backed up by results at home. That will partly depend on whether the U.S. Congress passes his green infrastructure plan.

Meanwhile, other countries are upping their commitments.

The European Union has announced plans for a 55 per cent emissions reduction from 1990 levels by 2030, after having already cut emissions nearly a quarter.

The U.K.'s emissions cuts have been even more aggressive and this week it set a new target of 78 per cent in reductions by 2035 from 1990 levels.

A major challenge for Canada, unlike those entities, is the significance of oil and gas production in its economy; fellow oil producer Norway, for example, has been less successful than its regional neighbours in cutting emissions. 

A superpower rivalry is another emerging dynamic. 

Turning climate into a modern-day 'space race' 

Fifty years after the U.S.-Soviet space race, Biden administration officials are casting this moment in similar terms, as a chance for two adversaries to compete on the battlefield of scientific discovery.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a speech this week that cast the climate issue as a sprint against China — to fund, invent, and ultimately sell clean technology.

"Right now, we're falling behind," Blinken said. 

"China is the largest producer and exporter of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, electric vehicles. It holds nearly a third of the world's renewable energy patents. If we don't catch up, America will miss the chance to shape the world's climate future in a way that reflects our interests and values. And we'll lose out on countless jobs for the American people."

A protester holds up signs of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Trudeau and Biden near the White House on Wednesday, a day before the summit opening. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

China, for its part, is at a crossroads in its climate policy. 

The average Chinese person doesn't pollute nearly as much as a Canadian or American on a per-capita basis, but the country's total national emissions have exploded.

China's emissions are single-handedly responsible for half the world's growth in carbon output since 2005, as hundreds of millions of its citizens join the global middle class, and the country has surpassed the U.S. as the top emitter. 

Yet it's not just building new coal plants. 

At the same time, China has become a world-class inventor, producer and exporter of clean technology, and it entered this summit having already promised to have emissions peak by 2030. 

Speaking at the U.S.-led summit, President Xi Jinping did not announce new targets. He did, however, commit to start phasing down coal consumption in five years. 

A former official in the Trudeau government said this is the story to watch at the summit: the U.S. and China turning clean technology into a lucrative contest. 

"The lens to see the climate issue through has changed," said Gerald Butts, now a vice chairman at the political-risk consulting firm the Eurasia Group.

"[It's gone] from multilateral co-operation, which it has been for the past 25, 30 years, and it's now very much a theatre for strategic economic competition." 

The most valuable car company in the world is now Tesla. Its market capitalization has surpassed $700 billion, dwarfing numerous competitors combined.

Investors are now plowing money into these technologies while governments make plans to yank fossil fuels out of energy grids.

And neither China nor the U.S. want the other leading these fields, says Butts.

"The United States and China, in particular, are competing quite ferociously for who is going to have the most significant parts of the new energy supply chain.… And that's created a much different dynamic which you'll see on full display."


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