As It Happens·Q&A

Canada can hit its new climate targets while supporting pipelines: environment minister

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged that Canada will reduce emissions by 40 to 45 per cent, which is more than the 30 per cent target that the country previously maintained. As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson about the new target and how the Liberal government plans to reach it.

Jonathan Wilkinson says 'we are going to need oil' until we can transition to zero-emission vehicles

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson says Canada can hit its new climate targets while supporting pipelines and without increasing the price on pollution. (Mike Sudoma/Canadian Press)

Story Transcript

At the International climate summit hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden, leaders from around the world called in to share their plans for curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged that Canada will reduce emissions by 40 to 45 per cent, which is more than the 30 per cent target that the country previously maintained. 

In real terms, that means lowering the greenhouse gas emissions from 732 megatonnes, the baseline set in 2015, to 513 megatonnes. But with Thursday's announcement, Canada is forecasting a drop in the emissions to 439 megatonnes by the end of the decade.

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson about the new target and how the Liberal government plans to reach it. Here is part of their conversation.

Minister Wilkinson, we have heard your announcement. At the same time we heard Joe Biden's commitment for a 52 per cent reduction by 2030. Yours is only 40 to 45 per cent. Why would you allow the Americans to outdo you? 

There has been enormous progress on the climate file over the course of the past few years, going from a place where emissions were rising rapidly to a point where we can commit to a target that is as ambitious as this. 

But, of course, every country is a little bit different in terms of their structure. The United States has a bit of an easier path in the sense that they have a lot of coal-fired power generation, which is being phased out for economic reasons. 

In that context, if you look at what is required to make the reductions, I would actually argue that Canada's target is more ambitious than the American target. 

Justin Trudeau always appeared like the beacon of climate action for the world when we had a climate change denier in the White House. Is it harder to look good when you've got Joe Biden there? 

I think it's a good thing in the sense that we are pushing each other.

I've certainly spent a lot of time with [U.S. special presidential envoy for climate] John Kerry talking about these issues, looking at what they are intending to do and how that relates to the structure of their economy.

They understand what we're facing. And I think we're both pushing each other to be more ambitious. 

A number of climate change activists in this country, though, thought that you should have been more ambitious.… And we heard in the press conference today that this was what you considered to be not just ambitious, but more significantly the word "achievable." What makes it unachievable to go beyond this level? 

Science tells us that we need to be ambitious. But it needs to be attainable as well. 

Canada has reflected that, in the fact that we have perhaps the most detailed climate plan that exists on the face of the Earth. And so what we have looked at is the overall structure of the economy, how we can drive emissions, where we can drive them and how rapidly we can drive them. 

We have a very clean grid, so we need to make progress in reducing emissions from transportation, from oil and gas, from other industrial emissions and from buildings.

An oilsands facility seen from a helicopter near Fort McMurray, Alta., on July 10, 2012. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

But Canada is a very high emitter on a per capita basis, even if the percentage is low. The biggest single emitter in Canada is the oil and gas industry. So I wonder if that is a chief factor in what prevents you from going further. Are you constrained by the political realities of Alberta and the jobs in the oilsands? 

No, we're not constrained by the political realities, but we are constrained by the laws of physics. 

There's a lot of work going on to reduce emissions associated with the oilsands and with the oil and gas sector in general through things like the clean fuel standard ... methane reduction regulations ... [and] the price on pollution. 

But the second way in which we're going to drive emissions reduction through the oil and gas base is accelerating the deployment of zero-emission technologies because the oil that is produced in Canada is used either domestically for transportation applications or, by and large, in the United States for transportation-related applications. 

The faster we can deploy zero-emission vehicles and move to electricity or hydrogen, the faster we will see those reductions coming to fore.

We can't get away from the fact that [fossil fuels] is where the CO2 emissions principally come from. The oil and gas industry in Canada is the biggest emitter. Alberta is high on the list. And so your government is buying and supporting pipelines at the same time as claiming that you're going to get these emissions under control. Can you really do both? 

We are doing both. 

[The] work we're doing with large emitters in that space ...  those are going to make a big change in terms of emissions. 

But I would also say we are working ... very actively with the Americans right now on how we can accelerate the deployment of the zero-emission vehicles. You will be very well aware that 98 per cent plus of the cars that exist on the road today use oil [and] gasoline. We need to get to a point where that's zero, and we need to try to get there as quickly as we can. 

But in the transition between now and then, we are going to need oil in the context of the internal combustion engine. And so that's part of the transition we need to go through.

You're promising to achieve the cuts to our emissions without changing your targets for the price of carbon. Is that possible? 

Absolutely.

The price on pollution is an important part of our plan for sure. And that was part of what I announced with the prime minister in December. There are also some really important regulatory measures and there will be some new regulatory elements, so we're working on enhancing the methane regulations with the U.S. and we're looking at transportation-related regulations. 

But we certainly are also going to need to do more on the investment side in areas like buildings.

We laid it out so that businesses in particular can have certainty about what that's going to look like over the course of the coming 10 years. 


Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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