Peter Boag
President and CEO, Canadian Fuels Association

September 2019

Setting climate change targets: enough wishful thinking

Setting GHG emission reduction targets in the absence of a serious, credible plan to achieve them has been a serial problem for federal governments – regardless of their political stripe.

From Rio to Kyoto, to Copenhagen and now Paris, Canada has a consistent track record of signing on to international agreements and making emission reduction commitments that are not met.  Admittedly, the verdict on achieving Canada’s Paris commitments is still out, but the federal government’s own data shows that it too is in serious jeopardy.  Earlier this year, Environment & Climate Change Canada projected that even under a best-case scenario — one that takes into account policies already in place and those that are "under development but have not yet been fully implemented" — our total emissions in 2030 will only be 19 per cent below 2005 levels.  In other words, all the climate-related policies that were on the table as of January this year would get us less than 2/3 of the way to Canada’s 2030 Paris target of 30 per cent below 2005.  

Yet, here we are in the middle of a federal election campaign in which climate policy is a central theme, and all parties and their leaders are perpetuating the ‘target-no credible plan’ problem.

The NDP pledges to increase Canada’s target to 38 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.  The Greens would double down with a 60 per cent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030.  The Liberals would maintain our current 2030 target but have committed to ‘net zero’ emissions by 2050.  In each case the targets are accompanied by vague policy proposals, with major gaps between target ambition and achievable outcomes and the practical impediments that must be overcome, and with little transparency on societal costs.  The Conservatives, while making no further commitment beyond the current and likely unachievable 30 per cent below 2005 by 2030, would undo much of the current federal plan but are vague on how they would get us there. 

What may be the best example of the disconnect between targets, plans and actual outcomes was Environment and Climate Change Minister  Catherine McKenna’s response to media questions about how the Liberals will achieve their ‘net-zero’ emissions target when she stated:  “If we are re-elected we will look at how best to do this”.

So, how did it come to this? A recent report by The University of Ottawa’s Positive Energy initiative identified “dangerous optimism” – a failure to understand and consider the political, economic, and social realities of large scale change – as a root cause of the disconnect.   The report focuses on energy consuming and producing activities that account for 80 per cent of Canada’s GHG emissions.  It highlights the problem of focusing on technical feasibility while underestimating, and even ignoring, “the real worlds of politics, citizen demands, consumer expectations and investor confidence”.

Aspirational targets that lack transparency about how to reach them or that ignore their practical consequences on citizens’ daily lives may make great sound bites on the campaign trail -  but they do little to inspire sustained confidence in the ability of governments and politicians to address the real challenge of climate change. As we head into the final weeks of this election campaign, let’s demand more from politicians and hold them accountable for presenting credible, achievable and transparent plans to accompany their climate change targets.

Canadian Fuels Association