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A closer look at the varying climate targets of the provinces and territories

Canada is a patchwork of climate ambitions, and that risks making our progress slower and less cost effective.

There is a saying that the ship of state turns slowly. If that’s true of Canada, imagine how long it takes to steer the flotilla of our federal system. Then try imagining how hard that is when the ships are pointing in different directions.

In Canada, responsibility for climate policy is shared between the federal government, the provinces, and the territories. That is both an advantage and a disadvantage. On the one hand, as the Institute has argued before, Canada is more likely to achieve its climate targets when many people share responsibility for working toward a common goal. On the other hand, the fight against climate change demands collective action, and that is harder when there are multiple decision makers who have different interests.

As this Insight will discuss, Canada’s provinces and territories are at very different stages of climate change planning. While some have set ambitious emissions reductions targets and have plans to hit them, others have made few commitments. 

This patchwork of ambitions has worrying implications for climate action in Canada, creating a risk that our progress will be slower, costlier and less effective than if all orders of government work together.

Together, provincial-territorial targets add up to less than half the national target

While the federal government sets national targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the provinces and territories hold important tools in the fight against climate change, with the best known being electricity policy

For that reason, an effective Canadian response to climate change demands high levels of intergovernmental cooperation. In an ideal world, the various orders of government would set compatible goals and use their respective policy tools in tandem.

In the real world, the different orders of government disagree about what their goals should be, and how to reach them. One way to see this disconnect is to look at near-term emissions reduction targets. 

While the federal government has committed to cut Canada’s emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, the collective ambition of the provinces and territories is much lower. If you add up their formal emissions reduction targets, they amount to less than half the national target.

It’s important to consider what this ambition gap does and doesn’t mean. It won’t necessarily prevent Canada from hitting its national targets. The federal government is using its own policy levers, from regulations to carbon pricing to targeted subsidies, as well as a climate accountability process, to point Canada toward its goals. 

Nor is it wrong for different orders of government to have varying approaches to climate action. Those differences can even be useful, if they lead to conversations about how to support more coherent and ambitious action across the country.

Instead, the real significance of this ambition gap is that uncoordinated, misaligned climate action will be slower, more costly, and less effective than an integrated approach. Our early estimate of national emissions shows that, while policy progress is accelerating, Canada needs more provincial, territorial, and federal cooperation to hit its target.  

How do the provinces and territories stack up on climate action?

There is misalignment among provinces and territories as well. Sub-national governments across the country have taken powerful measures of their own, from the coal phase out in Alberta and Ontario to funding for electric vehicle chargers in Quebec to free heat pumps in Prince Edward Island. But individual measures are not the same as a coherent plan to reduce overall emissions.

As 440 Megatonnes has discussed before, four provinces and territories have not set emissions reduction targets or plans for 2030. Even if these regions are taking action to cut emissions in some areas, their lack of clear targets and credible plans means that falling emissions in one sector could be offset by rising emissions in another. 

And while some have expressed a willingness to aim for net zero by 2050, that goal will be very hard to deliver without plans or interim goals. The fact that some of these provinces and territories have the most emissions intensive economies in the country also raises questions about regional fairness.

It’s reasonable for provinces to have different needs and aims. Not every region benefits from readily accessible hydropower, for instance, while some have large oil and gas sectors with stubbornly high emissions. But that is no reason to avoid making plans and taking action. 

On the contrary, the most emissions-intense economies are those that will benefit from long-term thinking, since they will be most exposed to economic risks from the transition to cleaner forms of energy.

Everyone has an interest in effective climate action

The year 2030 once seemed far away. Now, that milestone year for climate action can appear uncomfortably close, especially for anyone thinking about how much must change in our energy systems, investment cycles, or regulatory processes. Yet some provinces and territories are not planning emissions reductions in a concerted way, even those that are aiming for net zero in the long term.

This lack of policy certainty benefits neither citizens nor investors. Every province and territory has good reasons to set climate targets and plan for the future, whether for the sake of affordability, competitiveness, or public safety. And the more closely they align those targets with national goals, the smoother the country’s path will be. Canadians may not all be in the same boat, but we are all in the same flotilla.

Ross Linden-Fraser is a Senior Research Associate with the Canadian Climate Institute.