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Five things we’re looking for from the new federal climate plan

December 11, 2020

4-minute read

The federal government has promised a new climate plan before the end of the year and we expect it to be released any day now.

The plan will build on the 2016 Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change that has shaped the government’s climate agenda for the past five years. Every major Liberal climate policy, from carbon pricing to a clean fuel standard to the accelerated phase-out of coal power, is outlined in that 2016 plan.

So this new plan has the potential to be a big deal. It will largely determine whether and how we meet our greenhouse gas emission reduction target for 2030 under the Paris Agreement. And while it won’t get us all the way to a net-zero economy, this plan may determine whether meeting our 2050 net-zero target is even possible.

To put us on that path the new plan must be ambitious, comprehensive and urgent. Here are the five things we’re looking for from a plan that meets the scale of the climate crisis.

  1. Does the plan commit to meet and exceed our targets in absolute terms?
Governments and the energy industry like to talk about “emissions intensity”, which refers to GHG emissions per unit of economic activity. If our population and economy grow, but our emissions stay flat, then we’ve improved our efficiency!

Unfortunately, the planet doesn’t care about efficiency. The only thing that matters from the perspective of climate change mitigation is reducing total greenhouse gas emissions.

This distinction is especially important in the context of fossil fuel production and consumption. We can capture more methane from the oil sands or improve the fuel economy of our vehicles, for example, but at the end of the day we are only improving efficiency, not getting to the root of the problem.

A real plan will focus on absolute reductions in line with our 2030 and 2050 targets.

  1. Does the plan commit to domestic emission reductions?
If there’s one thing that governments and industry like talking about more than emissions intensity, it’s carbon offsets and credits (or “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” in the parlance of climate wonks). The basic idea is that one (often wealthier) country pays another (often poorer) country to reduce emissions on the wealthier country’s behalf.

It’s a good idea in theory, but a huge moral hazard in practice. Instead of making the hard choices to reduce emissions at home, the government with the greatest means claims they can get another country to do it for cheaper. In the end, neither country reduces their emissions as much as they can or should.

To be clear, we ought to be doing both: cutting our emissions at home while helping less developed countries do so on their own terms. But we shouldn’t expect carbon credits for our efforts.

A real plan will meet Canada’s climate targets through domestic reductions alone.

  1. Does the plan require immediate action?
It’s no coincidence that climate targets are invariably set for 10, 20 or 30 years in the future. A distant target allows a government to boast about their commitment to action without taking any action themselves. Look no further than Canada’s long string of missed emission reduction targets at both the federal and provincial level.

Indeed, the current federal government’s newly-tabled net-zero legislation exemplifies this failure. Rather than placing obligations onto themselves, the new legislation makes compliance a problem of future governments.

A real plan will commit to immediate action across the board and show Canadians how we will reduce emissions next year and the year after that.

  1. Does the plan commit to winding down fossil fuel production?
For the past five years, Canada has been engaged in a delicate dance of advocating climate leadership while propping up and defending the largest source of emissions in the country: the fossil fuel industry.

The production of oil and gas alone—just getting it out of the ground, never mind consuming it—accounts for 26% of domestic emissions. Yet our environment minister still claims that Canada’s fossil fuel industry will exist “even in a net zero universe, after 2050, to extract energy value from hydrocarbon resources.”

We can’t be more clear: if the government fails to address this elephant in the room, Canada cannot, in good faith, claim to have a climate plan at all.

A real plan will include a timeline and strategy for winding down fossil fuel production (including new fossil fuel infrastructure like the TMX pipeline) significantly, if not entirely, by 2050.

  1. Does the plan include specific, “hard” policies?
The previous climate plan included a lot of “soft” policies; things like “federal, provincial, and territorial governments will work together to facilitate, invest in, and increase the use of clean electricity across Canada.”

That’s not a plan. That’s a plan to make a plan.

Hard policies are firm, specific commitments with financial, legal or political heft. For example, the old plan stated unequivocally that “all [provinces] will have carbon pricing by 2018.” That was a measurable promise that the government had to follow through on—and it did.

A real plan will include specific commitments, not vague, unenforceable promises.

No more excuses

What all of the issues described above have in common—appeals to efficiency, use of carbon credits, delayed targets, downplaying fossil fuel production, and avoiding hard policies—is that they amount to excuses. They are rationalizations for governments to avoid making tough decisions today.

But tough decisions are what’s required to meet the climate crisis and the longer we wait the more challenging those decisions become.

Let’s hope the federal government steps up.

Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood is a senior researcher on international trade and climate policy for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Follow Hadrian on Twitter @hadrianmk.

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