The Liberal government has upped its greenhouse gas emissions reduction target, but so far, has provided no new details on how it plans to reach that goal.
The country’s new target is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 to 45 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Thursday. That’s a jump from its previous goal of 30 per cent.
But when pressed on the “concrete plan” for achieving that goal, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said it’s “accurate” to say the government isn’t providing those details today.
“What we’ve said is we will need to continue to do work over the coming nine years which remain between now and 2030,” Wilkinson said.
Investments over the years have put Canada on a track to achieve a 36-per cent reduction of the 2005 levels of greenhouse gas emissions, according to Wilkinson. That includes Budget 2021’s planned investments in things like carbon capture technologies and interest-free loans for deep home energy retrofits.
Wilkinson called the government’s existing plan “perhaps the most detailed plan that exists on this planet,” and he said it has “areas” where the government can “continue to accelerate progress.”
He did not, however, expand on what those areas are.
“What we’ve said is we will need to continue to do work over the coming nine years, which remain between now and 2030,” Wilkinson explained.
One of the things the government won’t be doing to meet the new goal, he said, is ramping up the carbon pricing schedule.
The carbon price is set to steadily increase year over year until it hits $170 per tonne by 2030. That timeline has been made public to “give industry certainty as to how this will work,” Wilkinson said.
“We do not intend to change the trajectory.”
Despite the lack of details underpinning Thursday’s new target announcement, Wilkinson’s pledge that the government will be able to achieve a 45-per cent emissions reduction holds some water, according to one environmentalist.
“Canada does have a plan, currently, to achieve at least 36-per cent emissions reductions,” said Catherine Abreu, executive director of the Climate Action Network.
“We can build from there.”
In the past, she said, the problem hasn’t been that Canada sets itself out-of-reach emissions reductions targets. Rather, governments tripped up when they didn’t draft the plans to back up those goals.
“Canada has a really horrendous track record of setting targets and then never developing a plan to meet them. This government has broken that trend, which is a good thing,” Abreu said.
And while Wilkinson provided no new details on how that plan might be tweaked to meet the new, tougher target, Abreu said the government can take steps towards reach its ambitious new goal by “doubling down on the timely and ambitious implementation of policies that are already envisioned.”
The future of oil and gas
But on its own, ramping up existing policies won’t be enough to hit the new target, Abreu acknowledged.
“The big elephant in the room here is dealing with emissions from Canada’s oil and gas sector. It’s the largest source of emissions in this country and consistently a big gap in our climate plans,” Abreu said.
About 82 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions come from our use of energy: using gas to drive our cars, producing non-renewable electricity, oil and gas production and keeping our homes warm in the winter. The oil and gas sector alone accounted for 26 per cent of Canada’s total emissions in 2019, according to the federal government.
“That’s the sector that is our leading source of emissions. It’s been the source of most of the growth, and it’s the one that needs the most attention if we’re going to go even deeper (on reductions),” said Kathryn Harrison, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia.
Canada faces a “tradeoff,” she added, between “a healthy oil industry” and “deeper emissions reductions on a fairly short timeline.”
Wilkinson alluded to this tradeoff during his Thursday press conference.
“It’s going to be a transition. Everybody recognizes that,” he said.
He added that in order to achieve net-zero emissions, “you’ve got to get to a point where you’re not combusting carbon as a source of energy.”
As part of its climate goals, Canada currently has the target to achieve net-zero by 2050. That means that within the next 30 years, Canada’s goal is to either emit no greenhouse gases or offset all of its emissions. While Wilkinson was referring to this net-zero-by-2050 goal, his comments stood out to Harrison in the context of the 2030 emissions reduction goal, too.
“He was quite explicitly talking about moving away from fossil fuels rather than counting on capturing and storing the carbon,” Harrison said.
Despite Wilkinson’s comments, one expert said there’s still a future for the oil and gas sector in a more eco-friendly economy.
“There will still be a role for oil and gas. They can be generating hydrogen, for example. We’re one of the lowest-cost producers of hydrogen in the world. And hydrogen could be an incredibly important source of fuel for trucks and businesses,” explained Stewart Elgie, a professor of law and economics at the University of Ottawa and director of the university’s interdisciplinary Environment Institute.
He added that carbon fiber is another growing oil-based industry.
“The carbon fiber from the oil sands is worth more than selling the oil for burning,” Elgie explained.
The real risk Canada faces, according to Elgie, isn’t from the impact of addressing the oil and gas sector’s impact on emissions. Rather, it lies in not innovating the industry as the global demand for fossil fuels shifts.
“The world is moving to a low carbon future, whether Canada likes it or not. Investors, businesses and most nations are on board. The train is moving,” Elgie said.
“The worst thing we could do is to just pretend the change isn’t happening, because then we’re going to get left behind in a changing world.”