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Trudeau moves on pledge to cap oil and gas emissions as COP26 talks begin in Scotland

GLASGOW, United Kingdom — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the memory of Lytton, B.C.

GLASGOW, United Kingdom — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invoked the memory of Lytton, B.C., on Monday as he called for more global action in the fight against climate change and said Canada is starting to move on his election promise to cap emissions from the oil and gas sector.

Trudeau gave a short speech Monday at the 26th meeting of the Council of Parties to the UN climate convention, known as COP26 in Glasgow. The 14-day talks are starting with a leaders' summit bringing together presidents and prime ministers from more than 120 countries to finalize how they'll actually meet the goals of the Paris accord. 

"In Canada, there was a town called Lytton," Trudeau said. "I say 'was' because on June 30, it burned to the ground."

The Lytton fire occurred in a punishing heat wave that saw the town reach 49.6 C, the hottest temperature Canada has ever recorded. He said it's the kind of thing that could happen anywhere and another sign that it's time for the world to step up.

"The science is clear: we must do more, faster," he said. "So that’s the pledge and the call I bring to this historic meeting."

COP26 is grappling with setting the rules for implementing the goals of the 2015 Paris agreement — the main one being to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to hold global warming to as close to 1.5 C as possible by the end of the century. 

That includes final agreements on what countries have to report about their plans, and their successes or failures at reducing greenhouse gases. Emissions like carbon, methane, and nitrous oxide, produced mostly from burning fossil fuels like oil, natural gas and coal, get lodged inside the atmosphere, where they trap heat and warm the planet.

Some of the stickiest talks have to do with the responsibility of the biggest polluters and economies to both reduce their own pollution, and also help smaller and less developed countries adapt to and mitigate against a problem they are far less responsible for causing.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, at her last COP before she retires, told the conference the world is not where it needs to be yet to implement Paris, and there is a special role for developed countries because of their bigger responsibility for climate change to date.

Germany, she noted, recently increased its emissions targets to 65 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030, and to be carbon-neutral by 2045. 

Those targets are more ambitious than Canada's new goal to get to 40-45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The targets of the European Union, United Kingdom and United States are also more aggressive than Canada’s.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault, a longtime Canadian environmentalist, said Canada's new targets, just submitted to the United Nations in July, aren't going to be changed this week. The focus now is on implementing policies to actually meet them.

Trudeau said Monday the government is now moving on its election promise to cap emissions from the oil and gas sector. The pledge made in September would see emissions limited to around current levels and ratcheted down every five years until they are carbon neutral by 2050.

“We’ll cap oil and gas sector emissions today and ensure they decrease tomorrow at a pace and scale needed to reach net zero by 2050,” Trudeau said.

“That’s no small task for a major oil and gas producing country. It’s a big step that’s absolutely necessary.”

Guilbeault and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson on Monday formally asked the government's net-zero advisory board to help them accomplish this goal.

"We seek your advice on key guiding principles to inform the development of quantitative five-year targets," the ministers wrote in a letter. 

"Your advice will also help inform the emissions reduction plan for Canada’s 2030 target that we are committed to tabling in Parliament in the coming months."

Catherine Abreu, executive director of Destination Zero and a member of the net-zero advisory body, said Canada's issue is that the promised cap does not specifically address production of oil and gas.

"Canada has to grapple with production," she said while attending COP26 herself.

Abreu said the least developed countries submitted a request to COP26 for the developed world to set a specific date for when fossil fuels will not be produced or burned anymore.

Dale Marshall, national climate program manager with Environmental Defence, also said Trudeau's pledge fell short.

"Focusing on emissions from oil and gas production but not production itself will allow oil and gas companies to keep putting forward false solutions, such as carbon capture and storage, fossil-based hydrogen, and far-off net zero plans, all while pumping out more and more atmosphere-destroying fossil fuels," Marshall said in a statement.

"We cannot go from climate laggard to even the middle of the pack without curtailing oil and gas production, starting now."

Guilbeault said the federal government does not have jurisdiction over production, but does have jurisdiction over pollution. He cited the recent Supreme Court decision upholding the federal carbon price as evidence that Canada can act to force emissions down.

Alberta's premier, however, argued that any caps on emissions need to be set in consultation with the province.

"I don't know why they would make an announcement like this without consulting with the province that actually owns the overwhelming majority of Canada's oil and gas reserve," said Premier Jason Kenney.

Kenney told a news conference his government isn't necessarily opposed to an emissions cap, but "we need to know what the cap is.”

He urged the federal government to invest in technologies that cut emissions, repeating his call for $32 billion in public funding for carbon capture, storage and use facilities, which inject carbon dioxide deep underground.

Trudeau also said Monday that $1 billion of Canada's promised $5.3 billion international climate financing will be directed to help less developed countries get off coal power.

That announcement was welcomed by Mafalda Duarte, CEO of Climate Investment Funds, which works with development banks, governments and communities in developing countries to finance climate solutions.

“Canada understands our climate future will be won in developing countries," she said.

"Today’s announcement from Prime Minister Trudeau is a strong signal of Canada’s leadership in climate finance and represents a significant expansion of the country’s 12-year partnership with the Climate Investment Funds."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 1, 2021.

— With files from Bob Weber in Edmonton

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press