The premiers have been meeting in Whitehorse this week, and climate and energy are on the agenda again. For long-frustrated Canadian climate hawks, it’s remarkably refreshing to have a federal government that is verbally committed to climate action, as well as a provincial government in Alberta that is finally taking action to cap the increase in oil sands emissions. But it is also important to keep in mind how far we are from having a meaningful climate policy in Canada.

A meaningful climate plan needs to have, at minimum, two core ingredients. First, there needs to be a measurable climate target for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions over a specified time period. Second, there must be enforceable policies in place that can reasonably be expected to achieve that climate target. Canada is doing reasonably well on the first ingredient, but is a long way from putting the second in place.

Canada does have a real climate target. In the run up to the Paris Accord last December, the Harper government committed to reducing emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and the Trudeau government seems intent on staying with this target for the time being. According to Simon Donner, Canada would be doing its fair share to meet the international agreement of limiting global warming to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels. But Canada’s commitment is nowhere near sufficient to meet Paris’s bolder 1.5°C target (that would require more than a 90 percent reduction, according to Donner). Our 30 percent by 2030 target would be much stronger if it was embodied in domestic law, but at least it provides a measurable objective to guide policy.

Canada is not currently on a path to meet this target. The latest inventory report from Environment Canada (see the figure below) shows just how far off we are.

Source: Environment Canada
Source: Environment Canada

A more optimistic scenario comes from the work of Dave Sawyer and Chris Bataille, who modelled the impact of current policies as well as recent policies like the Alberta climate plan and Ontario’s cap-and- trade plan. Even if those policies and plans are faithfully implemented, Canada would only be half way to its target of 30 percent by 2030 (it would be 110 million tonnes of CO2 short of its 2030 goal of 524 million tonnes, from a 2005 base of 749 million tonnes).

Where will Canada get the remaining 110 million tonnes of required reductions? There are many potentially effective options – pricing through a carbon tax or through cap-and-trade, through regulations, or through some combination thereof. Over the past week, we have heard fresh commitments from the Trudeau government to introduce a nationwide carbon price, even if some provinces are opposed to this. But there’s no signal, publicly at least, as to what the level of the price floor will be. Nor is there any indication of how the national price would be coordinated with existing provincial climate policies.

The highest carbon tax in Canada is currently BC’s $30 a tonne (a level that, as we’ve known for some time, won’t enable that province to meet its own provincial climate target). Alberta will be moving part of its economy to $30 per tonne in 2018, but the Quebec price (and soon the Ontario price) is only around $16 per tonne. Pledging to establish a carbon price is virtually meaningless unless you specify the price and design, and demonstrate how it will achieve Canada’s target.

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Canada clearly needs new, bold policies to close the gap and meet its 2030 target. Until now, we’ve relied almost exclusively on uncoordinated provincial initiatives: a carbon tax in BC, a ban on coal in Ontario, cap-and-trade in Quebec, and mixture of pricing and regulatory instruments in Alberta. One important consequence of this is we have yet to have any kind of national discussion about appropriate burden sharing among the provinces. At present there are widely varying costs of carbon across the provinces. Alberta’s bold new plan, as significant as it is, doesn’t actually reduce Alberta’s emissions. If Canada is to reduce its emissions by 30 percent by 2030, what should each province’s share of that national reduction be? It seems hard to imagine a political agreement where other provinces reduce their emissions by even more than 30 percent to allow Alberta to continue its current level of emissions.

I hope the premiers can make major strides towards addressing these issues this week. But that seems unlikely. It’s time for the federal government to do what federal governments are supposed to do: show real leadership on vitally important national policies. Canada doesn’t just need carbon pricing – we need carbon pricing and climate policies that are actually strong enough to meet our commitments to the international community and future generations. We have a long way to go.

Photo: Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, right, along with Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, left, attend a meeting of provincial premiers in Whitehorse, Yukon, Thursday, July, 21, 2016. The Canadian Press/Jonathan Hayward


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George Hoberg
George Hoberg is a political scientist and professor in the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia. He specializes in environmental and natural resource policy and governance.

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