Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole said today that a government led by him would not seek to hit the Liberals' more aggressive emissions reduction target but would instead commit to the target first set by former prime minister Stephen Harper.
"In April, we launched our plan on climate change. It will meet the Paris objectives. It's not changing the Paris objectives. We will meet the Paris objectives that were actually set by the tail end of the Conservative government and signed onto by the Liberal government," O'Toole said in Newfoundland today.
When Canada signed on to the Paris agreement in 2015, it adopted the previous Conservative government's target of reducing emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
At an international climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden in April, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau adopted a more aggressive target — a reduction of at least 40 per cent over that time period, a target that could rise as high as 45 per cent.
That new emissions target was registered with the United Nations in June. The Liberal government said that the new target was enshrined in law under the recently passed Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act.
If the government misses that target, it must — according to the new law — produce a report outlining the reasons why it failed and laying out a plan to meet the target.
The targets that countries commit to under the Paris agreement are voluntary and there are no binding consequences for countries that change their targets, beyond the impact to their international reputation.
Should O'Toole's party form the next government, he would need to present his new target to the UN Climate Change conference, COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland in early November and explain his government's change in policy.
Liberal candidate Jonathan Wilkinson, the environment minister, issued a statement after O'Toole's comments accusing the Conservatives of wanting "to take Canada backwards."
"There is absolutely no time to waste in the fight against climate change and yet the Conservatives don't just want to pause climate action, they want to take Canada back to the Harper days of inaction," said Wilkinson in the statement.
"There are going to be many questions around why the new Canadian government is doing this less than a year after raising the targets," said Eddy Pérez of the Climate Action Network.
"It could create a lot of diplomatic uncertainty and represent an embarrassment for O'Toole to have to deal with that on its first international multilateral meeting. If O'Toole gets elected, COP26 happens five weeks later."
O'Toole said it's important to have a plan that is achievable and affordable.
"Securing the future for our country means we need a strong economy to tackle climate change, to get our emissions down. We have a plan to do that, it's measured and we put it forward because we will deliver on it," O'Toole said today.
Accepting a carbon tax
That plan, initially announced in April, departed from the previous Conservative position of opposing a carbon tax.
Under O'Toole's plan, Canadians would pay a carbon levy — initially amounting to $20 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions — every time they buy hydrocarbon-based fuels, such as gasoline. The Conservative Party's carbon price would increase over time to a maximum of $50 per tonne, and the money raised would go to personalized savings accounts which Canadians could use for environmentally friendly purchases.
The current Liberal policy — which applies only in provinces that have not set up their own carbon pricing — is now set at $40 per tonne and is set to rise each year until it reaches $170 per tonne by 2030.
The Conservative plan to reduce emissions includes other measures, such as requiring automakers to sell more zero-emissions vehicles, lowering industrial emissions, increasing the use of renewable natural gas and implementing a low-carbon fuel standard.
Mark Jaccard, a professor of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University, said it's a waste of time to get hung up on the targets that federal parties put in the election window.
"Canadians should not pay attention to the targets that political parties are putting out. They should pay attention to the policies," he said. "We do want aggressive climate policy and targets but we want them to be honest about what they cost."
Jaccard said that 30 to 40 per cent reductions are achievable and the Liberals have had the most "honest" climate policies, but the Conservatives are now starting to "catch up."