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The expectations on Canada at COP28

The country is failing to meet its climate targets. What does it mean for its credibility?


As the world gathers in Dubai this week for the start of the United Nations climate summit, known as COP28, Canada is heading there on the heels of a grim report card from the federal environment commissioner on its efforts to reduce emissions. 

The latest audit from the commissioner's office found Canada is set to miss its 2030 target to cut carbon emissions by at least 40% below 2005 levels.

What's more, Canada's emissions are significantly higher than in 1990.

"Canada is the only G7 country that has not achieved any emissions reductions since 1990," Commissioner Jerry DeMarco told reporters on November 7, when the report was released. 

So how does Canada continue to paint itself as a climate leader as it gathers with the signatories of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Paris Agreement?

"For Canada to credibly lead on climate on the global stage, it first needs to have its house in order when it comes to national climate policy," says Alan Andrews, an environmental lawyer and climate program director at Ecojustice.

In that, Canada is not alone in having a dismal track record. The latest emissions gap report released by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) found that the world is heading for a perilous temperature rise far above the Paris Agreement 2°C goal unless countries escalate their commitments. To get there, emissions must decrease by 28% by 2030 and 42% if the world is ever to meet the goal of 1.5°C.

As things stand, if countries fully implement their unconditional nationally determined contributions (NDCs), the world will be on track to limit a temperature rise to 2.9°C above pre-industrial levels this century. Fully implementing conditional NDCs would lower this to 2.5°C.

"They're pretty daunting numbers," says Selina Lee-Andersen, an environmental lawyer and partner at Miller Thomson in Vancouver. 

But UNEP's production gap report also found that many governments, including Canada, plan to produce more than double the amount of fossil fuels in 2030 (110%) that would otherwise be consistent with limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5°C.

"The window is closing, and I think there's consensus around that," says Lee-Andersen, who is representing the Canadian Bar Association at COP28.

The first-ever global stocktake also concludes at COP28, allowing countries and stakeholders to assess collective progress towards meeting the goals of the Paris pact.

Despite a mixed track record, Lee-Andersen says Canada still maintains its leadership role in climate issues. Past achievements in helping launch the Global Carbon Pricing Challenge, heading up the Powering Past Coal Alliance, driving carbon price initiatives and committing funds to help developing countries transition to clean energy underline Canada's continued impact on the global stage. 

For his part, Andrews credits the Liberals for opening themselves to scrutiny by enacting the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act. "Now the question is, how will they respond to it?"

According to Catherine McKenna, a former minister of environment and climate change in the Trudeau government, to say Canada will miss its 2030 targets is somewhat misleading. 

"We actually have a plan to hit our targets," she says. "What didn't come out in the commissioner's report is that if Canada doesn't implement the policies in that plan, for sure, we're going to miss the target."

"But the government has indicated what it needs to do," she added. "Now it actually has to do the work" – albeit amid strong opposition from well-funded interests. 

Topping the list of key policies is capping emissions from the oil and gas sector – this country's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, which have increased. Andrews says the sector's failure on this count explains why Canada isn't meeting its targets.

Initially proposed in 2021, the promised emissions cap has faced repeated delays, attributed partly to disputes over modeling, but Andrews says politics are the ultimate hurdle.

McKenna, who left politics in 2021, says the amount of lobbying by the oil and gas sector is a real problem. 

The industry has said it wants to be part of the solution, and many companies have committed to net zero, says McKenna, who chaired the UN's High-Level Expert Group on the Net-Zero Emissions Commitments of Non-State Entities. But a genuine commitment to net zero requires real emission reductions aligned with scientific targets. That requires refraining from investing in new fossil fuel infrastructure and ending lobbying efforts against climate action. 

"You need to be scaling money from fossil fuels to clean, and they're not doing any of that," McKenna says.  

She criticizes oil sands operators, much of whose profits are distributed to shareholders outside of Canada, while they seek subsidies to address their pollution. Meanwhile, in her view, Canadians bear the brunt of rising oil and gas prices.

The topic of oil and gas getting a free pass will be the focus of much of the discussions at COP28, with expected proposals to phase down or phase out fossil fuels. Sultan al-Jaber, CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, is chairing the conference this year. His selection as COP president has raised the ire of climate activists.

"The one good thing is that now the fight is where the fight should be – what are we doing with fossil fuels," says McKenna of the sector's heavy presence.

As much as people are closely watching Canada, expecting more decisive action, it is ultimately incumbent on every country to follow through on promises with actual implementation, McKenna says.

Still, as the world convenes in Dubai for COP28, Canada brings with it the baggage that the implementation of government policies is falling short, as highlighted in the environment commissioner's report.

"There's no reason we can't do better," says Lee-Andersen. "But we have to make meaningful commitments to preserve our credibility, not only at home but on the global stage as well."