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Canada may decide in future to enshrine carbon pollution reduction targets in law, says Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna.
She made the comment during a wide-ranging interview with National Observer from Katowice, Poland, where international climate talks are taking place. An open letter from 33 Climate Action Network members on Dec. 3 had called for such legislation to compel governments to stick to their commitments.
"It is vitally important that your government deliver on its promise to create real accountability, measurability and transparency for Canadian climate action, with legislation which will ensure that successive governments deliver on Canada’s climate targets," the groups said.
A major report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on Oct. 8 said there are only 12 years left to drastically cut carbon pollution levels and keep global average temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels. Beyond that, humanity will face more frequent and intense drought, floods and extreme heat, and hundreds of millions of people will be at higher risk of poverty.
The IPCC report said the world must cut pollution to roughly half of 2010 levels by 2030 to avoid damage to ecosystems and irreversible changes to the climate. Canada has committed to cutting its carbon pollution 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, and the Trudeau government has moved to implement a price on pollution nationwide, and such other measures as tighter building codes and investments in green infrastructure.
But Canada's Paris climate agreement target won’t achieve the carbon emission cuts deemed necessary by the thousands of scientists who helped put together the IPCC analysis. In addition, a Nov. 27 UN environment emissions gap report showed that without stricter measures, Canada will fall short of its current target. Young people in Quebec have applied to sue the Canadian government over this issue.
Canada has also been criticized by Indigenous and other groups for pursuing fossil fuel infrastructure even as it moves to cut its pollution. On Monday, a new report by Stand.earth and Environmental Defence cast further doubt on Canada's ability to constrain emissions, given the “current growth trajectory for oil and gas production in Canada.” It said oil production would have to be "curtailed" to meet IPCC targets.
“Right now we’re focused on reporting in a transparent way," said McKenna, when asked about putting targets into law. "I think you need to look at the tools — we are going to have a committee of experts that’s going to advise us on how we make sure that we’re doing what we’ve committed to, and looking at other opportunities. So I think that might be a decision in the future.”
The committee is a new climate change research and policy body, expected to start within the next year and receive $20 million over five years to advise the government on how to implement its existing policies.
While the groups who co-signed the Climate Action Network letter said that they recognized the advisory committee could provide "important and useful advice" about pollution reduction, they said "it does not, by itself, necessarily advance accountability" and that a legal regime, such as one proposed by New Democratic Party MP Linda Duncan, is a more useful proposal.
'I see countries like China who have stepped up'
Dec. 10 marked McKenna's first day at the talks in Poland, officially the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which run from Dec. 2 to 14.
The first week of the talks culminated in a bombshell moment Saturday night, when the governments of the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait disrupted the talks by refusing to "welcome" the IPCC report as part of its official text. The controversial moment served to underline how climate change advocacy around the world had weakened in the last few years, with some governments moving to assert a more unabashedly pro-oil stance than they had previously espoused.
“It’s going to be really hard here, no doubt,” the minister said. “But Canada’s committed, and multilateralism really matters — 195 countries came together to get the Paris agreement, and now we need to make sure we have the rules.”
The minister emphasized the efforts that China and the European Union are taking in reducing carbon pollution, and highlighted the work of an unofficial U.S. group seeking to promote state, municipal and private-sector climate action at the conference — after the official U.S. delegation held an event promoting fossil fuel use.
McKenna noted “the EU is all in on climate action,” and said she had just held a meeting with Chinese and European Union ministers. She said she is focused on hammering out the “rulebook,” the rules that will define how the Paris climate agreement is put into action.
“When I look around I see countries like China, who have stepped up. Everyone has a lot of work to do, but they’re stepping up and really committed,” the minister said Monday. “If you look at what’s happening on the ground, yes, China still has work to do on coal. But they’ve made historic investments in renewables.”
A recent Climatescope survey by BloombergNEF of 103 nations said China accounted for 64 per cent of the $136 billion invested in solar power in 2017, but also 68 per cent of the total coal power capacity installed in emerging markets last year.
McKenna also noted how she had just passed an unofficial U.S. booth at the conference, called We Are Still In. She tweeted #wearestillin later in the day when meeting with Global Ocean Forum president Biliana Cicin-Sain and Center for Coastal Studies president and CEO Richard Delaney.
“You have U.S. states, and cities, and businesses that are absolutely committed here,” she said.
At the China-EU meeting, she discussed establishing transparency rules; part of the Paris rulebook involves laying out how countries will be obligated to discuss their successes and failures at meeting carbon pollution reduction targets.
'Of course we need to implement'
In an interview Sunday with CBC News, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he did, in fact, expect Canada to hit its Paris targets — through implementing the price on pollution as well as people looking for “ways to innovate, to pollute less and the positive virtuous cycle that comes through this, as people make better inventions and innovations.”
McKenna told The Canadian Press Dec. 5 she expects Canada to adopt even higher carbon pollution targets in 2020.
Asked how she could explain to Canadians why tougher targets were being contemplated when the prime minister was still relying on “inventions and innovations” to help reach the current targets, McKenna said “no doubt, it’s hard.”
“Of course we need to implement, that is critically important. There is no point in having a bunch of measures that you announce if you don’t implement. We’re very focused on that,” she said.
She also sought to blame the former Harper government, which held power from 2006 until the Liberals won the 2015 federal election. “We had a government for a decade that did nothing,” she said.
“We were going in the wrong direction. We brought in a whole range of measures — from saying it will no longer be free to pollute in Canada, to making historic investments in renewables, in public transportation, in green infrastructure, to tackling methane emissions in oil and gas, to implementing the Montreal Protocol...across the board, you need to take all these actions.”
As well, McKenna emphasized the importance of “Team Canada,” by which she meant the participation of not only federal officials, but provincial ones at international climate talks. Trudeau has locked horns with Ontario Premier Doug Ford, for example, over Ford's decision to cancel Ontario's price on pollution, energy efficiency rebates and renewable power projects.
“How can provinces be more ambitious, rather than less ambitious?...When we look at putting a price on pollution in provinces where the provincial governments have not stepped up — in fact, has stepped back to make pollution free — we’re giving them money back. You need to make sure that your policies are making life affordable,” she said.
McKenna sticks to 2025 subsidies target
The Paris agreement and labour leaders have called for a “just transition” for workers in the fossil fuel industry to ensure they can transition to the low-carbon economy fairly and equitably. A Canadian federal task force has privately advised the Trudeau government to increase support for workers and communities affected by a national 2030 coal power phase-out, which Canada and the United Kingdom have been championing.
On Monday, 415 investors, with $32 trillion in assets-under-management, launched a new call to action. The 2018 Global Investor Statement to Governments on Climate Change urges governments to “transition to a low carbon economy in a sustainable and economically inclusive way.”
“Governments should work with investors to ensure that the benefits and opportunities created by acting on climate change and the increased adoption of clean energy technologies are accessible to all,” the call to action reads.
National Observer asked McKenna whether she felt it was time for Canada’s just transition task force to be expanded to include all fossil fuels. "Our focus in Canada has been on a just transition for workers in the coal industry and the communities that surround them," she said.
“Can you imagine five years ago, having financial institutions representing that much in assets, talking about how we need to be investing in a cleaner future? I think that’s the big piece out of that,” added the minister.
“I think it’s also great that they’re talking about — we need to have workers and people squarely part of that. We know if we’re going to actually be able to take action on climate change in a robust way, in a resilient way, we need to bring people with us, and that includes workers."
The Global Investor Statement also called on governments to “set a clear timeline by 2020 for the phase-out of all fossil fuel subsidies.”
Canada has committed to phasing them out by 2025, but is also the largest provider of fossil fuel subsidies in the G7, per unit of GDP, according to a study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development.
Asked about the 2020 target, McKenna said, “our commitment is 2025, and we’ve already taken action on fossil fuel subsidies — and it is also something that is at a provincial level too.”