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The new institute hopes to help inform the 'very difficult' conversations the country is facing, chief executive Kathy Bardswick, seen here on Oct. 29, 2010, said in an interview.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A new federally funded institute launched on Tuesday with the aim of laying out Canada’s options to transition to a net-zero emissions economy.

The Canadian Institute for Climate Choices was created with a $20-million, five-year funding commitment from the federal government, but is intended to act independently of Ottawa. The organization is starting up against the backdrop of an intensely divided debate around how far Canada needs to go in its climate-change targets and policies that has largely broken down along regional boundaries.

Since the fall election, in which the Liberals were shut out of Canada’s oil-rich Prairie provinces, questions about how to bridge the divide between those who want stronger climate action and those whose livelihoods feel under attack by the policies have dominated national debate.

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The new institute hopes to help inform the “very difficult” conversations the country is facing, chief executive Kathy Bardswick said in an interview. “The institute can contribute to at least grounding those conversations in better evidence," she said.

Canada has set a target to cut emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. However, government data released in December shows it is on track to substantially miss that goal. The numbers show that, over the next decade, Canada still needs to find 77 megatonnes in emissions reductions to meet its goal of limiting emissions to 511 megatonnes in 2030. And even as it struggles to meet its current goals, Ottawa has signalled that it will set more ambitious targets.

The organization launched with an inaugural report calling on the country to “expand the scope, scale and pace of climate policies" and cautioning that the economic transformation needed to meet the Paris climate targets is “on a scale not seen since the First and Second Industrial Revolutions.”

Ms. Bardswick is the former president and CEO of the Co-operators Group Ltd., and was a founding CEO of Sustainable Prosperity – later renamed the Smart Prosperity Institute – an Ottawa-based think tank.

She said the group will work to fill the “holes in our understanding” of how Canada can reach its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Ms. Bardswick said the institute will focus on what Canada’s options are for reaching the goal and where the country will get the “biggest bang for our buck” as it transitions to a cleaner economy.

The organization is led by a board made up of representatives with backgrounds in finance, academia, civil society and industry, and is chaired by Peter Nicholson, the retired inaugural president of the Council of Canadian Academies.

In addition to its board and staff, the institute has three expert panels, which include some of Canada’s foremost scientists, researchers and economists. The panels focus on adaptation, mitigation and clean growth.

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Ms. Bardswick said the institute’s board, which doesn’t include any government representatives, will set its strategy and research agenda.

She said the group will try to figure out how Canada can meet its emissions-reduction targets which, "while necessary and noble, we’ve not yet figured out how best to achieve.”

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