The Canadian government’s constantly changing climate goals

“Everybody has thrown out numbers and different targets, and what they’re going to do and what is going to happen…What we need is not ambitious political targets.”

– Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, CBC interview, October 10, 2015

“[On] the question for framing the temperature goal, we support reference to striving for 1.5 [degrees Celsius of warming] as other countries have said…If we want to achieve this temperature goal, everyone needs to be part of this. We need maximum participation where everyone puts their best efforts forward.”

– Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna, Paris COP21 summit, December 7, 2015

How the hell do we square these two statements with each other?

Because make no mistake about it, a temperature target of 1.5°C is both an ambitious target and a political one.

Major industrialized nations, including the United States and the European Union, favour a target of 2°C. The 1.5°C target, favoured by nations in the Global South, and particularly low-lying and island nations, is the more ambitious of the two targets on the table during Paris negotiations, as it requires a much more rapid transition away from major sources of carbon emissions. It is a matter of life or death for hundreds of millions of people living at or near sea level:

Thoriq Ibrahim, Maldives minister of environment and energy, said the danger of exceeding a 1.5 degrees target is “especially acute for the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a group of 44 low-lying island and coastal states from around the world.” […]

Warming has now reached 1C,” the island nations said in a statement. “At the same time, our islands are experiencing the impacts of an ongoing extreme El Niño and the science is telling us that such events will occur twice as often over the 21st century if we do not act strongly and decisively. Additional magnitudes of warming will only increase the risk of such severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts.” […]

Ethiopia State Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change Kare Chawicha added, “climate change does not affect us equally. Those countries which have contributed least to the problem are often affected the most.”

And there’s the rub right there – industrialized and wealthy nations are afraid that they’re going to be on the hook for damages caused by their historical emissions.

However, momentum for the 1.5°C target seems to be growing – which makes it all the more regrettable that while Minister McKenna wants to see the summit achieve an “ambitious political target”, she feels it would be counterproductive for that target to be legally binding in the sense that countries would be obliged to achieve emission targets. It would merely be legally binding in the sense that countries would be obliged to set those emission targets.

And this is probably as good a time as any to point out that despite all the back-and-forthing over 1.5°C vs 2°C, the actual climate plans submitted by participating nations prior to the COP21 summit indicate that the world is set for over 3°C of warming – which puts the world on track for a vicious-cycle-type runaway global warming scenario, and a catastrophic civilizational collapse.

As for Canada’s national targets? Well…well, we haven’t exactly got anything to brag about…

The federal government hasn’t yet delivered a plan for reducing the country’s overall emissions of greenhouse gases, but the Liberals are already supporting a more ambitious climate agenda at the Paris conference…

Canada arrived at the Paris talks carrying the previous Conservative government’s pledge to cut emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 — a pledge environmental groups said was too weak but one that, nonetheless, came without a road map for achievement.

Ed Fast, the Conservative environment critic, called McKenna’s 1.5-degree ambition “symptomatic” of previous Liberal climate negotiations.

“The Liberal history is one of over-promising and under-delivering,” Fast said in an interview.

I hate to agree with Ed Fast, like, ever – and I can’t help but gleefully note that he got shunted from the prestigious post of International Trade Minister and the high-stakes drama of down-to-the-wire TPP negotiations into the unenviable position of CPC Environment critic – but I think he’s right here.

Of course, the “under-delivering” aspect is in large part due to the fact that the Liberals went to Paris with the Conservatives’ climate plan, one which they’ve been insisting since June that they wouldn’t have time to replace if elected. So Fast is in the odd position of damning his own party’s unambitious and road-map-less plan, while simultaneously slamming the Liberals for daring to think ever so slightly more ambitiously than the oil-industry-captured CPC even dared to.

But Trudeau himself seems unwilling to talk about what kinds of actions are required to make these more ambitious targets achievable:

But in a press conference deep inside the converted Le Bourget airport where nearly 200 nations will be meeting over the next two weeks to broker a global agreement on climate change, Trudeau was not completely forthcoming on specifics.

The prime minister has promised to meet with all the premiers within 90 days of the summit. But reporter after reporter asked Trudeau when exactly he would show Canadians concrete climate targets and a timeline for achieving them. Trudeau instead spoke about Alberta’s recently announced carbon tax, Ontario’s coal phase-out and other provincial actions. “We have started putting elements in place for [a national] plan,” he said. One reporter noted that “there was no real answer” to their questions.

As I noted a few days ago, Alberta’s carbon tax and tar sands cap still leave room for a metric whack-tonne of emissions, and as for Ontario’s coal phase-out, well, it’s a done deal, isn’t it, and there’s no new emissions savings to be had there. As for an all-province summit, we know that the premiers, though divided on many issues, can usually be counted on to get behind resource-extractive industries when push comes to shove. 

In other words, Trudeau doesn’t have a plan – he’s just hoping the provinces will do him a solid and come up with one for him

So, then, in summary, the Canadian government’s position is that we don’t need ambitious political targets, but we feel the world ought to aim towards the more survivable target, notwithstanding the fact that we don’t want to enforce the targets, and also notwithstanding the fact that targets that we and many other nations have set are miserably inadequate to achieve even the bare minimum of global warming prevention.

Got it?

Yeah, me neither.

Off-Topic Tuesday is when I write about whatever the hell I want to. You can reach me at or leave a comment below.

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