Trudeau promised legally binding climate targets — what exactly does that mean?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised during the election campaign that his government would enforce legally binding targets to help Canada combat climate change.

But details on exactly what that means were scarce. The plan contained no information on what the legally binding targets it would introduce would be. The pledge only said the targets would make Canada’s carbon emissions net-zero by 2050.

But Canada wouldn’t be the first country to enforce legally binding targets to become net-zero. The United Kingdom became the first G7 country to make the move earlier this year.


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What does net-zero by 2050 mean, anyway?

Dale Marshall, the national manager at advocacy organization Environmental Defence, told Global News that this is the first time Canada has aimed to reach net-zero carbon emissions.

However, he explained being carbon neutral or having net-zero emissions doesn’t mean getting rid of all emissions.

“There are some emissions that are very hard to get rid of,” he said. “So the idea here is not that we have zero emissions, but that the few emissions remain that are offset by carbon that is being sequestered in the natural environment.”

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How ‘legally binding’ targets work

Marshall added that having legally binding targets means there will be greater accountability for governments to work toward being carbon neutral.

“The legally binding part obligates the government to put into place policies to reach the target that is being set.”

The idea is that Canada would set goals on five-year increments to achieve the larger goal, he explained, adding that a third-party of scientists and policy experts would help the government create targets and then follow through on them.

Some options for the government to consider would be regulations, carbon pricing and government procurement

Marshall noted the concept of having legally binding climate targets is not entirely new. Some countries, such as Germany and the U.K. have introduced them already.

“It’s increasingly becoming a trend for some of these institutions to be legislated for countries to actually reach their climate target.”

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What the U.K. has done

In June, former British prime minister Theresa May said the country’s new legally binding net-zero commitment would mean would “eradicate its net contribution to climate change.”

The move came nearly a decade after U.K. passed its 2008 Climate Change Act, which entailed legally binding targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

The government’s Committee on Climate Change explains on its website that to meet the larger goal, it must set shorter targets every five years. The targets are then tracked by the committee, using several indicators.

Those include tracking emissions from electricity and vehicles, while also moving toward things like greener infrastructure and low-carbon heating systems.


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Marshall explained the U.K. is one of the most successful countries when it comes to reducing emissions.

However, one thing the British law does not do is account for is international emissions from aviation and shipping.

Marshall noted that’s because international emissions were not part of the Paris climate agreement.

“There is no real binding mechanism yet to address those emissions,” he explained, adding that there have been talks for decades on how countries can tackle the problem, and whose responsibility it should be.

Countries can come together, if they want, to form their own partnerships on the matter.

“Canada can decide with the EU, for example, we’re going to impose are carbon price on international flights that go either to or from Canada and the EU,” he said.

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What can Canada realistically do?

While pledges such as legally binding climate targets are promising, Canada has a lot of progress to make it even meet current targets.

Angela Carter, an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, told Global News that the Liberals are still far from fulfilling the Paris climate change agreement pledge to slash emissions to 70 per cent of what they were in 2005 by 2030.

There is one key issue the party has not addressed, she said.

“It doesn’t seem like the Liberal party is willing to confront the largest emitting sector in the country, which is the oil and gas sector.”



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Carter noted that the Liberals’ commitment to pipeline projects indicates they are not serious about reducing emissions enough to reach their climate targets.

Marshall added emissions from the oil and gas sector need to addressed as soon as possible.


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“Now that Canada is going to be putting in place a target to be net-zero by 2050, it means that we cannot keep building gas infrastructure,” he said.

He added that means using new technology and working with communities that are reliant on the industry to come up with solutions.

“How do we make sure these communities aren’t just thrown aside? How do we make sure that workers can be trained in growing sectors of the economy?” he said. “I think those challenges are real.”


(C) 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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