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Weenusk First Nations members packing their sleds ahead of a hunt near Peawanuck, Ontario, December 14, 2019. © 2019 Daron Donahue for Human Rights Watch

Darius Elias remembers childhood summers spent out on the land in Old Crow Flats, northern Yukon wetlands, where members of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation spent months harvesting food each year. But few travel to Old Crow Flats these days, as climate change has transformed the land.

Today, dramatic permafrost thaw and drained lakes make it difficult and potentially dangerous for Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation members to access the wild foods they use to ensure their food security and maintain their culture. In 2019, the First Nation declared a climate emergency and called on Canada to take urgent action to address these impacts.

On December 11, the Canadian government unveiled a new climate plan. While it includes some positive measures, it confirms that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government is still not ready to take the kind of action needed to address this emergency.

The Vuntut Gwitchin are not the only people in Canada facing a climate emergency. Our recent report documented the mounting toll that climate change is taking on First Nations in British Columbia and Ontario as well, contributing to growing food insecurity and related negative health impacts. Indigenous peoples aren’t the only ones affected. According to research published by the medical journal The Lancet, rapid warming contributed to a 58.4 percent increase in heat-related deaths of people over 65 in Canada in less than two decades.

With Canada warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world—and three times the global rate across Northern Canada—climate impacts like these will intensify and multiply. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has made clear that the next decade is a crucial time for action to keep warming below 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures to prevent even more catastrophic effects in Canada and around the world. 

It’s been five years since Trudeau pledged to make Canada a global climate leader. But his government has yet to update Canada’s woefully inadequate pledge—set in 2015 under the Conservative Harper government—to reduce emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. According to the think tank Climate Action Tracker, if all governments’ targets were limited to Canada’s level of ambition, warming would reach 2 to 3°C. 

Further, Canada has made virtually no progress toward meeting even this modest target. As of 2018, it had cut emissions by only 0.1 percent since 2005. And Canada has increased government support for fossil fuels since 2018, including by committing over US$14 billion in aid to fossil fuels since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to a November assessment from the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Canada ranks last among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries of the G20 when it comes to progress in ending support for fossil fuels.

The new climate plan positively commits new funding for energy efficiency retrofits and zero-emission transportation infrastructure and increases the cost of polluting through the federal carbon price. But these measures will only enable Canada to reach, at best, a roughly 32 to 40 percent emissions reduction by 2030, according to federal government projections. Environmental groups contend that a 60 percent reduction is a fair goal given Canada’s responsibility as one of the world’s top ten emitters.

If Canada is to do its part to address the climate crisis, the Trudeau government will need to offer more ambitious mitigation plans, including a rapid move away from perpetuating fossil fuel dependence through government subsidies. There are several concrete steps it should take immediately:

First, based on the best available science, set a more ambitious emissions target for 2030, along with clear, time-bound steps on how to get there. 

Second, amend the climate “accountability” legislation introduced in November to ensure that it establishes real accountability—and not just for future governments. Bill C-12 only establishes reporting procedures for five-year emissions targets starting in 2030, and provides for limited independent review of government mitigation efforts. The bill should require a 2025 benchmark for earlier accountability in achieving emissions reductions, and mandate annual independent expert review to regularly assess progress in meeting targets and inform needed changes in climate policy.

Third, complete Canada’s long-delayed subsidy review, part of a 2018 G20 commitment. Canada should provide a transparent and rigorous accounting of federal fossil fuel subsidies, including through Canada's export credit agency, Export Development Canada. Such an accounting is crucial to any serious effort to reduce fossil fuel dependence. 

Finally, commit to no new fossil fuel subsidies, particularly in future Covid-19 recovery spending. With billions more promised to big emitters in the new climate plan, this commitment is more important than ever.    

Back in Yukon, Elias’ community is acting with the urgency that seems to be lacking in Ottawa. They’re in the final stages of a new solar project – which has attracted federal government funding - that will help reduce their dependence on diesel. Canada should show more of the same initiative and implement a concrete plan to radically reduce emissions, or risk fueling even more devastating impacts in the near future, not just in Yukon, but throughout Canada and the world over.

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