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Canada will take a 'hard long look' at UN call to speed emissions reduction: minister

OTTAWA — Canada will take a "hard long look" at a call from global climate scientists to hit its long-term greenhouse gas emissions targets 10 years earlier than planned, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said Monday.
Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault arrives for a cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Thursday, March 9, 2023. Guilbeault says Canada will take a "hard long look" at a call from global climate scientists to hit its long-term greenhouse gas emissions targets 10 years earlier than planned. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

OTTAWA — Canada will take a "hard long look" at a call from global climate scientists to hit its long-term greenhouse gas emissions targets 10 years earlier than planned, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said Monday.

But he wouldn't promise that it's possible.

His comments came after the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a new report Monday warning the world is teetering dangerously close to missing its critical targets to keep global warming in check.

The panel's previous reports have warned that global warming must be limited to less than 2 C, and as close to 1.5 C as possible.

After 1.5 degrees, "the risks are starting to pile on," said report co-author Francis X. Johnson, a climate, land and policy scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute. The report mentions "tipping points" around that temperature of species extinction, including coral reefs, irreversible melting of ice sheets and sea level rise on the order of several metres.

The latest report published Monday said the world is getting close to its last chance to prevent the worst of climate change's future harms.

The panel, made up of dozens of international climate scientists, said that means that by 2035, worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions need to be less than half of what they were in 2019, and that wealthy nations need to aim for net-zero emissions by 2040.

Most of them, including Canada, have targeted 2050 for their net-zero commitment, which means that emissions are reduced so much that whatever is left is captured by technology or nature.

"Humanity is on thin ice — and that ice is melting fast," United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said. "Our world needs climate action on all fronts — everything, everywhere, all at once."

Guilbeault says Canada will study the report but it can't change its targets on a whim, because a target is meaningless without a realistic plan to reach it.

"This is a new request from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — obviously, one that we will study very carefully in Canada," he said.

"It's one thing to simply say, 'Well, you know, we want to reach this goal,' but we have to give ourselves the means to get there. We do that now in Canada for 2050. We will obviously need to take a second hard long look at what the IPCC is proposing for 2040."

Canada has set at least eight different emissions targets since 1988, and has failed to meet any of them to date. Its next target in 2030 hinges heavily on being able to ratchet down emissions from the oil and gas sector.

That 2030 target currently is to cut emissions so they are between 55 and 60 per cent of what they were in 2005. Based on emissions levels in 2020, meeting the 2030 goal would mean cutting about 23 million tonnes of emissions a year, on average. That's the equivalent of taking five million passenger cars off the road every 12 months until the end of the decade.

Oil and gas production and transportation account for about one-quarter of Canada's total emissions. Canada intends to cap those emissions this year and force them down at least 38 per cent by 2030. But it is getting pushback from Alberta and oilsands companies, which all say that target is not achievable.

The new UN report also says that by 2035, electricity needs to be entirely emissions-free, including no electricity from coal or natural gas. 

Canada is already targeting a clean electricity grid by 2035, and the phasing out of unabated coal by 2030. Gas is still expected to play a role, but Guilbeault said that by 2035, gas plants will also have to employ carbon capture and storage technology.

"The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts for thousands of years," the report said, calling climate change "a threat to human well-being and planetary health."

"We are not on the right track but it's not too late," said report co-author and water scientist Aditi Mukherji. "Our intention is really a message of hope, and not that of doomsday.’"

The world has already warmed 1.1 C compared with pre-industrial times, and scientists stressed a sense of urgency around the 1.5 C goal.

"1.5 is a critical critical limit, particularly for small islands and mountain (communities) which depend on glaciers," said report co-author and water scientist Aditi Mukherji, who's also the climate change impact platform director at the research institute CGIAR. 

Many scientists, including at least three co-authors, said hitting 1.5 degrees is inevitable. 

"We are pretty much locked into 1.5," said report co-author Malte Meinshausen, a climate scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia. "There's very little way we will be able to avoid crossing 1.5 C sometime in the 2030s."

But the big issue is whether the temperature keeps rising from there or stabilizes.

Scientists emphasize that the world, civilization or humanity won't end suddenly if and when Earth passes the 1.5 degree mark. Mukherji said "it's not as if it's a cliff that we all fall off." 

But an earlier IPCC report detailed how the harms — from Arctic sea ice absent summers to even nastier extreme weather — are much worse beyond 1.5 degrees of warming.

"It is certainly prudent to be planning for a future that's warmer than 1.5 degrees," said IPCC report review editor Steven Rose, an economist at the Electric Power Research Institute in the United States.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2023.

— With files from The Associated Press.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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