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Trudeau will have to work to meet even Harper’s modest emissions limits

A couple of weeks ago federal environment minister Catherine McKenna told CTV’s Evan Solomon that the Liberal government would not be setting new targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, opting instead to keep the targets that had been set by the Stephan Harper’s Conservative government.

McKenna’s announcement was, not unexpectedly, met by a significant amount of anger and criticism from many of Canada’s environmental organizations and activists. This was, after all, the same party that spent years in opposition criticizing the Harper targets as inadequate, and the same minister who insisted her government saw those previous targets as a ‘floor’ that they would undoubtedly improve upon.

These criticisms of McKenna’s decision are, of course, all valid: especially given the rhetoric from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at numerous domestic and international conferences and photo ops insisting that Canada was entering a new era of climate responsibility and “bold action” on emissions.

The thing about emissions reduction targets in general, however, is that they have historically not really amounted to anything in Canada. Every set of targets established nationally by Liberals and Conservatives alike has resulted in absolutely zero action and no actual emissions reductions whatsoever. In that context, the fact that Liberals decided to forego one more high profile announcement and photo op to announce a new more ambitious set of targets that they had no intention of meeting was somewhat refreshing.

According to a recent report by the Climate Action Network, we are currently on a trajectory to blow right past even Harper’s modest targets for 2030 by some 91 megatonnes of emissions. To put that number in perspective, Canada’s entire electricity sector emits 78.2 megatonnes of emissions annually.

Given that reality, the question Canadians should be asking is not why Trudeau did not set more ambitious targets, but rather whether he is prepared to take the truly bold actions necessary to meet the targets he has inherited.

Trudeau has suggested that his forthcoming national climate strategy will, at the very least, contain some form of national carbon pricing mechanism that will be negotiated with the provinces. A national price on carbon, whether in the form of a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, is long overdue and would be a welcome first step. There has been no other hint or mention, however, of what else might be in the climate strategy, and a carbon price alone will not bring us anywhere near to meeting our targets.

After more than 20 years of setting targets and doing absolutely nothing to meet them, we as a country are woefully behind. Nothing short of fairly drastic action will get us there—the kind of drastic action that Trudeau does not appear willing to even consider or acknowledge, much less implement.

There have been rumours circulating for the last few weeks now, for example, that Trudeau is all but ready to sign off on the controversial Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. This expansion would nearly triple the amount of Alberta oil produced and shipped west to Vancouver. Both Trudeau and Alberta’s Rachel Notley suggest that projects like these are necessary for national economic prosperity. That may or may not be the case. What is unquestionably the case, however, is that the approval and construction of Kinder Morgan, or any other pipeline for that matter, is absolutely incompatible with the goal of meeting the existing emissions reductions targets. This is laid out clearly in a number of recent reports including one last spring by the Parkland Institute, CCPA and the University of Victoria, and a new one released just a few days ago by Oil Change International. The data shows unequivocally that there is no way we can build even one new pipeline and expand the oil sands accordingly while meeting our reduction targets.

In the end, McKenna and Trudeau are both right that targets are far less meaningful than the actions taken to meet them. The question is: are they prepared to take the action necessary to actually meet their targets? Recent history would suggest they are not. V

Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta. The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute.

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