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Environment Minister Catherina McKenna speaks to Parliament in February 2016.

Environment Minister Catherina McKenna announced a last-ditch, unilateral carbon pricing policy—but wouldn't give any details about it—on Sunday. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Canada Scrambles to Create National Climate Plan, But May Sign COP21 Without One

One step forward, two steps back? Trudeau prepares to sign COP21 while Alberta approves $4 billion worth of new tar sands projects

Nika Knight

Canada's approach to tackling climate change grows ever more confused as the federal government scrambles to sign the Paris climate accord in early November—without actually putting forth a national plan to limit the country's soaring carbon emissions.

"Canada has a consistent history under successive Liberal and Conservative governments of making international carbon-cutting promises that it fails to honour, first under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and then again under the 2009 Copenhagen agreement," CBC reports.

"Ratification by Canada will help build the global momentum for action on climate change. To be taken seriously, however, we need a plan to actually turn those lovely words into deeds," said Keith Stewart, head of Greenpeace Canada's climate and energy campaign.

"We don't want to repeat the Kyoto Protocol experience where a Liberal government signed but then refused to spend any political capital to honour that commitment. Ultimately, the federal government has the policy tools it needs to act on climate and if Canada truly is back in the fight against global climate change then [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau must be prepared to do what is necessary even if it means angering the oil industry and their political allies," Stewart added.

Indeed, Ed Fast, a Conservative environment critic, told CBC that "Prime Minister Trudeau, in signing the Paris Agreement before finalizing his pan-Canadian framework on climate change, is making the same mistake Jean Chretien made with the Kyoto accord: acting alone without the support of the provinces and territories."

With a goal of reducing its emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, Canada already has the dubious honor of possessing "the weakest [target] among leading industrialized nations," critics say.

The Liberal government campaigned last year on a promise to revise that target, set by the previous Conservative administration, and make it much more ambitious, but the Trudeau administration has now back-tracked.

Perhaps in an attempt to assuage critics, on Sunday the federal government unilaterally announced a carbon pricing plan.

Yet the federal government announced the plan without the approval of provinces, and was immediately met with resistance from Saskatchewan, which is one of the few provinces that doesn't already have a climate pricing regimen, and from Quebec, which feared the government would force it to adopt different standards than the ones it already enforces, according to Reuters.

Alberta, the heart of Canada's controversial tar sands industry, already has a climate pricing policy and does not believe it will be affected by the new federal plan—although Canada's Environment Minister gave no specific details about the new policy.

According to Alberta's carbon pricing rule, which is not yet enforced, by 2017 tar sands companies that exceed their emissions targets will have to pay $15 per excessive ton of CO2 into a "technology fund" to go toward researching new technologies to further reduce carbon emissions.

Critics charge that it will be more cost effective for tar sands companies to simply pay the fee rather than seek to reduce their emissions, rendering the goal of reducing emissions moot. The province plans to raise the carbon tax to $30 per ton by 2030.

Meanwhile, Alberta also announced Friday that it had just approved a whopping $4 billion worth of new tar sands projects.

The projects, which were first submitted for regulatory approval in 2012, will emit 2.5 additional megatons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually, the province said.

The projects were the first to be approved since the province announced its 100 megaton emissions cap on greenhouse gases in 2015. Currently, the tar sands industry emits 70 megatons of CO2 per year.

Prior to the additional projects approved on Friday, Alberta was already expected to hit its cap as soon as 2025.

"Not sure how [provincial officials] are going to justify this move," wrote local Indigenous activist Eriel Deranger on Facebook in response to the announcement. "Oh wait, $4 billion. I guess we can all drink, eat and breathe all that money when the planet's ecosystems collapse."

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