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Environment Minister Was Right To Stick With Harper's Climate Targets

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CATHERINE MCKENNA
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Prior to the last election, the UN called on countries to submit plans to fight climate change before their next meeting on climate. With little time after an October election to develop something for the UN conference that December, the newly minted Environment Minister Catherine McKenna kept the previous administration's plan in place. It was to be a temporary measure; a 'floor' the government could build on as it worked to bring Canada "back" from the Kyoto-hating, "job killing carbon tax" rhetoric of the Harper years.

This Sunday, Minister McKenna made former prime minister Harper's greenhouse gas targets her own. In an interview on CTV, the Minister confirmed that Trudeau administration has no intention of changing the target laid out by their processor.

How you feel about this decision depends on how you felt about the target was in the first place. The Harper target is a 30 per cent reduction in Canada's greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. That works out to eliminating 208 million tons of carbon over the next 14 years. Is that ambitious?

Maybe not, if you think Canada's goals should be judged by what our peers are doing. By 2030, the U.S. expects to cut the equivalent of between 35 to 39 per cent of their 2005 emissions. Norway and Germany have a target of around 45 per cent reduction, while the UK wants to cut a whopping 61 per cent. We're not pledging the smallest amount -- we're aiming for larger reductions than Australia and Japan -- but we're not leading the pack.

What matters most in this case is not what our peers are doing, or even what it is "fair" for Canadians to be doing, but what can realistically be achieved.

Another way to look at the question of ambition is to see whether the target matches up with what Canada's "fair" share of emissions reductions. At least one group calculates that Canada's current pledge will not be enough, rating our current plan inadequate in achieving Canada's share of the the work to limit global temperature increases to 2°C.

Both these definitions miss the points. The value of these targets is political. Greenhouse gas emissions targets set a benchmark that allows others to hold the government to account and inspires other players to action. If business and other levels of government believe that the target is real, meaning that the federal government is willing to spend political capital and public funds to make them happen, they start building their own plans and priorities around them. If the targets are understood to be mere theatre, they get ignored.

What matters most in this case is not what our peers are doing, or even what it is "fair" for Canadians to be doing, but what can realistically be achieved. On this measure, it's clear that the Trudeau, née Harper, greenhouse gas emission reduction targets are in fact very ambitious.

Reducing 208 million tons of GHGs in a little over a dozen years is a difficult task. Decarbonizing the entire Ontario economy, which emitted about 170 million tones of emissions in 2014, would not be enough to meet this pledge. Taking all of Canada's cars and trucks off the road would not be enough to meet this pledge. Further devastating the Alberta economy by keeping oil production at current levels for the next 14 years would still leave 200 million tons to cut.

Canadian politicians, both liberal and conservative, have a record of setting "ambitious" but meaningless greenhouse gas reduction targets.

According to Environment Canada's projections, we're not even close to achieving the current target. Even in a scenario where Canada's economic growth is sluggish and oil and gas prices remain low, we're on a path to overshoot our target for 2030 emissions by 241 million tons.

When setting an effective target, there's a balance to strike. The target has to be a stretch, or what's the point in setting it in the first place. But setting a target no one believes will actually be achieved is the best way to ensure it has no value.

Canadian politicians, both liberal and conservative, have a record of setting "ambitious" but meaningless greenhouse gas reduction targets. Minister McKenna could have earned kudos in some quarters by setting the bar even higher, but in the process would have lost credibility among many of the business people trying to find a way to make these reductions actually happen.

By keeping a challenging but meaningful target, even one that was set by the previous administration, the government is signaling that this might actually be one set of climate targets worth taking seriously.

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