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Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions can’t be cut without a little pain

Smoke pours from the stacks at the Portlands Energy Centre in Toronto in 2009.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

You weren't really supposed to know this, but Canada is rapidly drifting away from its greenhouse gas emissions targets – targets that weren't all that ambitious to begin with. It is now clearer than ever that, if the Trudeau government plans to meet those modest targets, it will have to take drastic action in the next four years and be willing to inflict some pain on Canadians.

Last Friday, Environment and Climate Change Canada, as the federal department has been renamed, very quietly posted its latest GHG projections for 2020 and 2030. They aren't good.

In 2020, emissions will hit 768 megatonnes of carbon dioxide – way above Canada's target of 622. By 2030, they will have jumped to 815 megatonnes, compared with a target for that year of 524.

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Tellingly, the newest projections are the highest in years, no doubt a result of the previous government's laggardly attitude. Under Stephen Harper, Canada became a pariah in the international community – a supposedly enlightened country that refused to take steps to fight climate change.

Justin Trudeau came to power with a promise to cut GHG emissions and put a price on carbon. He made a show of attending the Paris climate talks in December, where he got a warm welcome. But that was the easy part. Now he has to find ways to reverse the runaway emissions train that Canada has been riding for years.

Decisions by some provinces to put a price on carbon, through taxes or a cap-and-trade system, should slow the increase in GHG emissions. Higher oil prices that reduce consumption might also help. But to produce the kind of sharp drop needed between now and 2030, Canada will have to amputate, not nip and tuck.

GHG emissions from the oil sands, for instance, will amount to half the increase in total emissions between now and 2030. Can Mr. Trudeau work with Alberta to reduce that through better technology, and impose a reduction if that doesn't work? Transportation is another huge GHG contributor. Will the PM have the courage to set new mileage standards in this car-crazy country?

And so on. The next four years in the fight against climate change will be critical ones. It's put-up or shut-up time. Canada must finally meet its targets, while growing the economy at the same time. And it's Mr. Trudeau who has to get that done.

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