Ottawa's Halfhearted Efforts Will Miss 2030 Emission Targets

Peter Zimonjic
Jerry DeMarco, commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development's latest report, says Canada is set to miss its 2030 greenhouse gas reduction target. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Nov. 7, 2023

Liberal government set to miss 2030 emissions targets, says environment commissioner audit

'We found that the measures most critical for reducing emissions had not been identified or prioritized'

The federal government is set to miss its 2030 target to cut carbon emissions by at least 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, according to the latest audit from the commissioner of the environment's office.

The commissioner's fall reports looked at five key areas: the government's fleet of zero-emissions vehicles, construction of charging stations, monitoring the catch of marine fisheries, the status of environmental petitions presented to Parliament and the government's progress on reducing emissions.

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The report painted a grim picture of emission reductions in Canada over the past 20 years, saying that the only significant drops in emissions came during the 2008 financial crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, which had little to do with emissions reduction policy.

"Canada is the only G7 country that has not achieved any emissions reductions since 1990," Jerry DeMarco, commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, told reporters Tuesday. 

Under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol, which the House of Commons ratified in 2002, Canada committed to cutting total emissions to 5 per cent below 1990 levels. Shortly after coming into office in 2015, the Liberals agreed to adopt the Paris Accord targets. 

The audit examined the government's 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan, published in March 2022. That plan details measures being taken to meet the Paris Accord commitment — of cutting emissions 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 — to determine whether Canada will meet its target.

"While the 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan included important mitigation measures to reduce emissions, some of these measures, such as the Oil and Gas Emissions Cap and the Clean Fuel Regulations, have been delayed," the audit said. 

"We found that the measures most critical for reducing emissions had not been identified or prioritized."

DeMarco's audit said the Liberal government later cut its projections for how much it would reduce emissions, first to 36.4 per cent below 2005 levels and then again to 34 per cent.

"Although this would be a significant achievement and change in trajectory for Canada's emissions, it falls short of Canada's commitment to reducing emissions to 40 per cent to 45 per cent below the 2005 level by 2030," the audit said.

Problem with the plan

The report said some of the measures in the 2030 plan lacked timetables that specified when those measures would be implemented. The audit said it had expected to find specific targets for how much each of the measures it implemented would cut emissions, but found there were no targets for 95 per cent of those measures. 

"Without expected emission reductions transparently available in the plan, it is not possible to know which of the mitigation measures to reduce emissions were key," the audit said, adding that information is vital "so that Canadians and parliamentarians can hold the government to account for its commitments."

The audit also criticized the modelling used to predict emissions in the plan, saying they were based on "overly optimistic assumptions, limited analysis of uncertainties and lack of peer review."

"The need for high-quality modelling is all the more important given that there has been no sustained downward trend in Canada's emissions since 2005," the report said. 

More accountability, monitoring needed

The audit found that there were significant delays in the implementation of emission reduction measures, with less than half of the measures having no completion deadline.

"These delays increase the likelihood that Canada will miss its 2030 target," the audit said. "They also could result in Canada adding a significantly higher amount of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere over time."

The report was also critical of the accountability measures in the government's plan, saying "the responsibility for reducing emissions and achieving the 2030 and 2050 targets is fragmented among multiple federal organizations not accountable to the" environment minister.

"The Privy Council Office should work with other federal organizations to review the authorities, responsibilities and leadership accountabilities relating to climate change mitigation," the report said. 

The report also said that measures designed to be inclusive — by ensuring that Indigenous groups were able to participate in the plan — fell short.

Zero-emission government vehicles

The audit examined the federal government's progress on achieving its target of having zero-emission vehicles account for 80 per cent of the government's vehicle fleet. It reported the project was well behind schedule.

"The problem is that available solutions are being implemented much too slowly. That needs to change now," DeMarco said Tuesday.

The audit looked at four government departments and agencies — National Defence, Parks Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the Canada Border Services Agency — which collectively own 10,580 of the federal government's 17,260 vehicles. Zero emission vehicles accounted for only between one and three per cent of their fleets.

"If progress continues at the current rate, the audit estimates that only 1 per cent of federal government vehicles will be zero emission by 2030," the report said.

Although the federal government is off track, DeMarco said it can "close the gap" to hit the Paris targets with additional reduction measures.

"The federal government can still reduce emissions and meet its 2030 target with drive, focus and leadership," he said. "Implementing our recommendations would be a step in the right direction."

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said those additional measures are on the way. He said they include draft regulations on the zero-emission vehicle mandate, new limits on methane emissions, regulations requiring a net-zero electricity grid by 2035 and a framework for an emissions cap for the oil and gas sector.

"The report we tabled to the UN last December showed that we are at 34 per cent towards achieving our 40 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030, so I agree with the commissioner," Gulibeault said. 

"We need to do more and we need to do it faster and that's exactly what our government is doing."

Guilbeault said the commissioner's audit used last year's emissions numbers and that by the end of 2023, the federal government will have some "good news" on emission reductions.

A sign with a car and plug symbol. The sign is next to a blue charging station on the wall. There are two cars parked one parking space away from the charger.
The commissioner of the environment's fall audit found that while there are more charging stations across the country, the gaps in coverage remain a problem. (Robert Jones/CBC)

DeMarco also looked at other environmental initiatives implemented by the federal government, including its zero emission vehicle infrastructure plan. 

The audit found that while there are more charging stations across the country, the gaps in coverage remain a problem. 

"The audit found that Natural Resources Canada did not do enough to ensure the equitable distribution of charging stations across Canada," the report said. "The department did not collect data to help it identify gaps in charging infrastructure based on the needs of communities."

The audit also found that Fisheries and Oceans Canada did not have the ability to collect dependable and timely information required to sustainably manage commercial marine fisheries and protect Canada's fish stocks.

"The collapse of the Atlantic cod population in the 1990s — with its far-reaching economic and social impacts — has shown that it is far more expensive and difficult to recover depleted stocks than it is to keep them healthy in the first place," DeMarco said.

Government response

The federal government issued a statement shortly after the report was tabled in the House of Commons Tuesday welcoming its findings and saying the work of the commissioner is "an integral part" of its plan to meet emissions targets and protect the environment.

"The commissioner is correct, there is still work to be done to meet our ambitious but achievable 2030 goal of at least 40 per cent emission reductions," Guilbeault said in the statement. "We still have major initiatives under development and will continue to look for more opportunities to reduce emissions."

Guilbeault also said that forthcoming regulations on zero emissions vehicles — which would require that at least 20 per cent of new vehicles be zero-emission by 2026, 60 per cent by 2030 and 100 per cent by 2035 — will "help increase supply and reduce wait times for federal departments" looking to update their fleets. 

Energy Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said improvements to how the federal government builds out the charging station network across the country are underway and gaps in coverage are being addressed.

Fisheries Minister Diane Lebouthillier said in the statement that she agrees with the the commissioner and will follow his recommendations to improve data gathering.

 See also: Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act—2030 Emissions Reduction Plan 


[Top photo: Jerry DeMarco, commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development's latest report, says Canada is set to miss its 2030 greenhouse gas reduction target. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)]