Blogs are opinion pieces and reflect their author’s views

Staying off target: Why greenhouse gas goals are not the best starting point for national climate change policy

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised that his federal government will sit down with the provinces within 90 days of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) Conference of the Parties (COP), which took place in Paris at the end of 2015. The goal being to have the federal and provincial governments discuss the path forward for Canada on climate change.

The time and place have been set – March 3 in Vancouver – but there is still some question about what, exactly, this meeting will achieve. Initial comments from federal and provincial environment ministers have played down what can be accomplished, suggesting that a fully formed national plan is unlikely to be established in the near future.

Some may argue that the new government is moving too slowly and its agenda for climate change lacks ambition. After all, scientists have been warning for decades that the clock is ticking and there is a finite amount of time left to bring down global GHG emissions. In addition, the glacial pace of climate change policy development in Canada under the Conservative government has created a sense that the country needs to act quickly and catch up to its international counterparts.

The biggest splash the federal government could make would be setting a bold target that is in line with what other developed countries, like the European Union, have established. This would also serve as a clear break from the previous federal government’s approach. However, the government is making the right decision in building their new plan from the ground up, to understand what is feasible before making promises. Announcing an ambitious target makes for a good photo opportunity and can lead to instant praise from many segments of society. But establishing goals before having a clear view of whether and how they can be met does not make for sound public policy. This is particularly so in Canada’s federal system where provinces, which have historically bristled at federal interventions on climate change, must be key players in implementing a national plan.

In fact, provincial experience in setting their own climate change targets and developing plans to meet them in the mid-2000s is instructive here. It is fair to say that all provinces faced challenges in meeting their targets. This was due to several factors including the economic downturn in the late 2000s, the lack of supporting policies at the federal level and changes in provincial leadership. However, this was exacerbated because many provinces set goals with little knowledge of how they would be achieved. Provinces like Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba have faced scathing reports from provincial auditors and environment commissioners regarding their targets, bringing negative attention to the file. BC and Quebec were able to demonstrate better progress towards their goals which has helped build or maintain support and has created an argument for pushing forward with their climate change agendas rather than abandoning them.   

There has been tremendous anticipation regarding the first ministers’ meeting on climate change ever since Trudeau made the announcement. The momentum that exists on climate change in the country is real and governments are right to take advantage of it. But setting unrealistic goals to gain accolades and headlines in the short term will jeopardize long-term progress on climate change. Provincial experience demonstrates this, and it is now up the federal government to learn from their example.