Serious climate action requires emission reduction targets

Trudeau’s announcement displays a very poor understanding of the evidence about how governments can help their societies reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate protestors holding up a cardboard sign that reads "The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it"
Photo by Nikolas Gannon on Unsplash.

Justin Trudeau has announced that the Liberals “won’t set a specific emissions target” for greenhouse gas emissions to address climate change. His reasoning is that, “what we need is not ambitious political targets. What we need is an ambitious plan to reduce our emissions in the country.”

The Liberal leader is rehashing a debate in climate policy that goes back to the 1990s. Then, in international negotiations leading up to the Kyoto Protocol, the debate was between those (like the European Union) who wanted to focus on targets to reduce emissions, and those (like the US and Canada) who wanted to agree on the “policies and measures” to be implemented. That debate has been decidedly answered in favour of targets and it’s a rare political leader (at least, one who actually wants to act on climate change) who still argues for policies without targets.

In other words, Trudeau’s announcement displays a very poor understanding of the evidence about how governments can help their societies reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If we look at the countries that have started on the path of substantial emissions cuts, such as Sweden, Germany or the United Kingdom, as well as the EU as a whole, all started with targets and then worked out what policies were needed to reach them. None started with policies alone.

There are good reasons for this. Trudeau is of course correct to assume that the targets on their own will not reduce emissions – they need follow-up policies, investment, and other sorts of action. And he is correct to say that previous and present Canadian governments have not followed up on their targets, rendering them empty promises. But targets do achieve two specific sorts of things that enable those policies to work effectively.

First, they focus the attention of government on the task at hand. They create a context for goal-oriented public policy. Without this goal, none of the specific policies, such as the investment Trudeau announced in clean tech innovation, can be evaluated as to their success, and the long-term attention by politicians and civil servants to the effects of policy is likely to be easily distracted.

Second, they can operate as a powerful signalling device for industry, consumers and above all investors. Investors are now deciding about what types of energy investments to make, and these are typically investments with long payback times. A strong, ambitious target to reduce emissions tells investors clearly that an investment in, say, a new coal-fired power plant is simply going to be unprofitable. So they will put their money into investments more consistent with the target. If you have no target, investors have no signal. It is no surprise that investors in particular have been calling for years for clearer signals from politicians about the desired depth and pace of emissions reductions.

A target is thus just the beginning. But it is an extremely important beginning. Climate policy at the federal level in Canada has been in a parlous state for the last 20 years, and vies with Australia for being the worst performing rich country on this crucial issue. If any new government elected on October 19th wants to do better, it needs to recognise the clear evidence of what has worked elsewhere and how that lesson can be adapted to Canadian conditions, not be tempted down a blind alley.

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