After a lost decade, it’s time to ratchet up our target

The context of our current challenge in the intertwined imperative for both a strong climate and energy strategy is embedded in former prime minister Stephen Harper’s record. We have lost 10 years.

The losses piled up from the minute in spring of 2006 when Harper’s new Conservative minority government cancelled every element of former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin government’s climate plan. The 2005 climate plan, under Martin, is so long ago that many forget it ever existed, or that it would have brought us close to our Kyoto target: six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012.

Canada became the first country to undermine the framework of global action by both repudiating Kyoto and abandoning the internationally accepted base year of 1990. The government announced Canada would cut emissions by 20 per cent below 2006 levels by 2020.

In shifting baselines and playing with the numbers, our former prime minister used climate targets the way a sideshow carny uses the shell game. Translated to the base year every other country was using, Canada’s 2006 targets would have left us above 1990 levels by 2020.

But setting the target did not mean the Conservatives intended to aim for it. With no measures to reduce emissions and a singular focus on boosting oilsands production, it was no surprise that Canada’s emissions kept rising. They kept rising through all manner of announcements.

John Baird, with great fanfare, announced his Turning the Corner plan. There was talk of regulations that never came. There was a “wait for Obama” gambit before Canada could take action, and Peter Kent’s “sector by sector” approach. These were all Conservative marketing schemes masquerading as climate policy.

Our emissions did drop in 2008-9, due to the global financial crisis. Harper took credit for that drop. When he was in Copenhagen for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 2009 negotiations, he once again weakened our target. This time the base year was 2005 to align with the United States and, conveniently, to a year when our emissions had been especially high (higher than in 2006).

Harper left Copenhagen with what was described as a “politically binding” commitment to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. That was the same target as the U.S., but Obama will reach that target as Canada blows by it once again.

Despite efforts at the provincial level—particularly Ontario closing its coal-fired power plants—once we recovered from the recession, Canada’s emissions kept rising. In May 2015, the previous government once again weakened the target, tabling with the UN the weakest target in the G7: 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada showed leadership in Paris. We were among the first industrialized countries to favour a long-term goal of holding global average temperatures to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above what they were before the Industrial Revolution. The 1.5 C goal is now the Paris accord’s goal. That’s the maximum global average temperature rise we can risk if we want to keep low-lying island states above the water line. That’s the maximum level to have a good chance of avoiding the loss of the Greenland ice sheet and the seven-to-eight-metre sea-level rise it would cause.

But even as we negotiated in Paris, the UNFCC had determined that the combined total of all pledged reductions (known as INDCs: intended nationally determined contributions), assuming all were achieved, would take the world to between 2.7 and 3.5 degrees Celsius. Twice too dangerous.

Unlike Kyoto, targets are not embedded in the Paris accord. The essence of Paris is that targets can be replaced at any time, but only to tougher targets. That’s the principle of “ratcheting up.” Canada needs to withdraw Harper’s target and table a new one soon. We need to ratchet up so that other nations will do the same.

What lessons can we draw from the lost decade? Some would have it that we now know setting targets doesn’t work. But most Kyoto countries met or exceeded their targets. The EU’s current target is 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030. And it will make it. Norway’s is also 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030. Norway will as well. Scotland will reach 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Some say Canada’s emissions are too small to matter. But we are among the top 10 nations in total emissions and in the top three of per capita emissions. We have an obligation to do our fair share and make up for lost time.

Our problem wasn’t our target. Our problem was our prime minister. Trudeau’s challenge is to keep his eye on the real goal: protecting our children from an unliveable world. Time to ratchet up.

Originally published in the Hill Times.