On climate, accountability is the real test for Mr. Trudeau

As the federal government continues to mull its plan to address climate change, Canadians may be watching with a mixed feeling of hope as well as understandable skepticism. This is a movie that we've seen before: ambitious international agreements signed by a Liberal government to much fanfare yet missing a real target or plan to get us there. Kyoto 2.0 is something we don't need.

Whatever the Liberal government announces in the fall, one thing will be critical: a real plan and clear accountability must accompany any targets for those targets to be meaningful.

Canadian governments have been a global climate laggard for far too long. For a decade, the Conservatives’ approach to the environment made Canada an international pariah, as they ignored science, dismantled environmental protections, withdrew from environmental treaties, and refused to work with the global community to fight climate change.

Before that, Liberals signed the Kyoto Protocol and committed Canada to reducing emissions to 6% below 1990 levels by 2012. But by the time they lost power, Liberals had slashed funding to Environment Canada, handed over $8 billion in subsidies to the oil and gas industry and had missed their emission reduction targets by a whopping 34%.

In December, Mr. Trudeau missed an opportunity to show real and verifiable leadership at the COP21 conference on climate change in Paris. Canada arrived in – and left – Paris with Stephen Harper’s climate targets. The environment minister pledged Canada to a 1.5 degree warming cap – which is laudable – but did so without a plan to reach that goal or any idea of how it would affect the Canadian economy.

Canadians elected the Liberals on a promise of change, and an expectation that greenhouse gas emissions will go down, each and every year. Unfortunately, at her very first appearance at the House of Commons environment committee, the minister said she isn’t sure they will.

So how do we put Canada on track?

A few weeks ago, I outlined in a pre-budget piece for the Hill Times how Canada can get on track and thrive through a strategic transition to a clean economy. (In the end, Budget 2016 contributed the equivalent of a drop in a bucket towards that transition – while indefinitely continuing annual subsidies north of a billion dollars to the fossil fuel industry despite clear promises to end them. But that’s another story.)

The other half of this journey is in setting down ambitious greenhouse-gas reduction targets and a plan to get there.

New Democrats believe we have to go a step further. Jack Layton’s Climate Change Accountability Act is a legacy of his desire to see Canada commit to real targets and his belief that governments must be accountable for following through on their pledges to Canadians and to the planet. Whatever the Liberals announce in the fall, they must look to Jack’s bill for a robust and responsible approach to fighting climate change that they themselves voted for in Parliament in 2009 and again in 2010.

Here are three critical tests for Mr. Trudeau's plan.

First, Canada must commit to meeting science-based emissions targets needed to ensure global temperatures do not exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.

Second, Canada must set medium and long-term targets, and then develop plans to achieve them.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Canada must be accountable for those targets. We achieve that by setting interim goals every five years developed in compliance with the latest scientific reports and methodology of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and reflecting the most stringent targets set by other nations – because Canada should lead by example, and set best practices in the OECD as our benchmark.

Communities are already feeling the impacts of climate change – especially in rural and remote areas – and municipalities and provinces have shouldered too much of the burden to date.

The time for determined federal leadership is well upon us. After a lost decade under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives – and years of missed targets from previous Liberal governments – it is time Canada finally stepped up. Leadership is not judged by the words you say or the promises you make. Real leadership is about having clear goals, a plan for achieving them, and doing our fair share on the world stage and holding our own government accountable back home.