The House

'You can't just come up with targets out of thin air,' says environment minister

The new Liberal government still has no emissions targets or clear policies on how to reach future targets with the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris happening at the end of the month. Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna and NDP environment and climate change critic Nathan Cullen discuss the politics of climate change on CBC Radio's The House.

Catherine McKenna says Canada's emissions targets will be determined after the UN Conference on Climate Change

Hunter Tootoo, minister of fisheries, oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard speaks with Catherine McKenna, minister of the environment and climate change after being sworn in. McKenna says the national target set by the Conservatives for cutting greenhouse gas emissions should be considered a floor for future action. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Canada will not go to the Paris climate change talks with a new target, or a concrete framework to reduce carbon emissions, according to Catherine McKenna, the minister for the environment and climate change.

But newly released ministerial mandate letters indicate the environment is still one of the new Liberal government's top priorities.

"People are looking at what Canada is going to commit to," McKenna said in an interview with Chris Hall on CBC Radio's The House. "But we're not negotiating targets at this meeting, what we've said is that in 90 days after this meeting, we're going to work with the provinces and territories to come up with our target but also what our plan is to get there." 

The Conservatives announced in May that Canada's contribution to this year's Paris talks would be a 30 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by the year 2030.

Canada, however, is currently not on track to meet its existing 2020 cuts agree to under the 2009 Copenhagen accord, and the Harper government did not provide any policies to meet the more ambitious 2030 goal.

"You can't just come up with targets out of thin air," McKenna said.

"The Conservative target is a floor not a ceiling, but you have to do the hard work to figure out — how do we change our economy and move to a low carbon economy?"

McKenna, and ministers for natural resources, foreign affairs, international trade and innovation, science and economic development have all be tasked with developing policies that will keep global warming at bay, and they'll all partake in drafting Canada's plan to keep temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius. 

Need for leadership

Nathan Cullen, the NDP MP for Skeena–Bulkley Valley, and the party's environment critic, said there is a desperate need for federal leadership and — while he's hopeful — he's worried that the government is heading to Paris without much of a plan and wiggle its way out of cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

"We didn't wake up yesterday to the reality of climate change," Cullen said. "The Liberal Party has had years of experience in government with trying to deal with climate change and failing.

NDP environment critic Nathan Cullen says he's concerned that the Liberal Party is not heading to the Paris climate change talks with an emissions target, or a plan. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"If we walk out of these next climate talks with some lofty speeches and some selfies, that's not going to be enough," Cullen said. "Environmentalists are already raising some concerns." 

McKenna, for her part, rejected the idea that the talks would be a failed effort if Canada doesn't show up with hard numbers.

"Some people want us to announce a new target [pre-Paris climate talks] but that's not a responsible way," McKenna said. 

"Canadians want us to act in a responsible way and that's why we will come back and look at how we're going to get a target and how we're going to actually reach the target."

Incentives possible

The Ottawa-area MP said the federal government and provinces will hash out a national emissions target. She said  there will be a number of incentives offered — likely in the form of green infrastructure funds — to bring provincial laggards in line. 

A top priority for the minister, as laid out in her mandate letter released Friday, is "[establishing] national emissions-reduction targets, ensuring that the provinces and territories have targeted federal funding and the flexibility to design their own policies to meet these commitments, including their own carbon pricing policies."

To that end, McKenna told Hall that she was headed for Alberta next week to meet with her provincial counterpart to bring the province in line with other jurisdictions that have made an effort to reduce emissions.

Canadian governments — Liberal and Conservative alike — have previously agreed to international carbon cuts, but failed to implement the policies needed to reach those targets. The Conservatives, for instance, failed to regulate the oil and gas sector despite promising to do so for the better part of a decade.

"I'm optimistic that we will be able to work together," McKenna said of the provinces and business community. 

"We have even heard from energy companies: they recognize if they want to get their resources to market we're going to have to demonstrate for all projects that we're able to do it in a responsible, environmentally sustainable way.

"The economy and the environment have to go together," McKenna said.

A NAFTA-like environmental agreement

Another top priority for McKenna, based on her mandate letter, is drafting a climate deal with the U.S. and Mexico, a North American Free Trade Agreement-like plan that would harmonize standards on greenhouse gas emissions.

"I was told by the prime minister that this is something really important," McKenna said. "When I was in Paris, that was part of what I was doing. I had meetings with my Mexican and American counterparts and we talked about having a climate and energy strategy," McKenna said. 

"It's not just the international framework: we work in the North American context and I think there's a lot of progress that can be made there." 

Former prime minister Stephen Harper made a similar move during his tenure.

As CBC News reported in September 2013, Harper sent a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama formally proposing "joint action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the oil and gas sector," seen at the time as a key step to getting approval for the now-dead proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The overture was rejected.

Cullen said that crafting continent-wide environmental standards is a noble goal, but warned the government could be using this effort as a foil for its inaction on the climate front.

"My only concern is that sometimes that's been used as an excuse for delay: 'Well let's wait for Congress to act, then Canada will set a price, and set a plan," Cullen said, noting that Obama has actually taken bold steps in recent months to reverse his country's track record.

"The excuses are gone, working with Americans makes sense but it should never be used, as it has in the past, as an excuse not to act."