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A Short History of Greenhouse Emission Reduction Targets

Contributed by Robert Lyman  ©  2020. Lyman’s bio can be read  here.


The Trudeau government has announced that it is committed to attaining a “net zero” greenhouse emissions (GHG) reduction target by 2050. While that term has not been precisely defined, it appears to mean the virtual elimination of human-produced GHG emissions and therefore ending the use of fossils fuels like coal, oil and natural gas in Canada. The New Democratic Party and the Green Party also subscribe to this goal. In the present competition to determine who will lead the Conservative Party, both of the front runners, Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, also have endorsed this target. The only candidate who has explicitly rejected it is Derek Sloan. The People’s Party of Canada has longed opposed present climate change policy and indeed has advocated the departure of Canada from the Paris Agreement.

Unfortunately, most of the public has little understanding of what the net zero target means or what is its background. This note is intended to provide that explanation.


In 1992, the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), including Canada, agreed to set voluntary targets to stabilize their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000.

A small number of European countries (notably Germany and the United Kingdom) met this goal. Almost all others, including Canada, did not.

In 1997, the countries party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed to a formal treaty (i.e. the Kyoto Protocol) under which they would commit to reduce GHG emissions by 5% on average from 1990 levels by the end of the “first commitment period” in 2012. Canada signed the treaty and committed to reduce emissions by 6% from 1990 levels.

The United States Administration signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1998, but did not submit it for ratification to the US. Senate. In 2011, Canada, Japan and Russia declared that they would not take on further Kyoto targets. Canada announced its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in December, 2011, as it was clear by then that continued adherence would expose Canada to hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties.

Almost all of the countries that signed the Kyoto Protocol missed their emission reduction targets.

A second commitment period started in 2012, known as the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol. Under this agreement, 37 countries set binding targets; almost all of them were European countries.

In 2012, Canada committed voluntarily to reduce emissions to 17% below 2005 levels by 2020. By 2018, it was clear that Canada would not meet this target, either.

In 2015, prior to the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) Conference in Paris, Canada voluntarily committed to an even more stringent target, that is, to reduce GHG emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. The Agreement reached at that conference did not require countries to accept legally-binding commitments, only to submit Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), or emission reduction plans, every five years. Neither China nor India, the two fastest growing sources of GHG emissions, committed to make reductions by 2030. The United States Administration announced its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2016.

COP26 was supposed to occur in 2020, before which all of the Parties were committed to submit updated INDCs. Due to the coronavirus, the conference has been rescheduled to 2021. Only seven countries have submitted INDCs, and only one has announced a voluntary commitment to a more stringent emissions reduction target by 2030 or beyond. As of 2019, it was clear that, with the possible exception of the European Union, none of the ten largest GHG emitters in the world, representing 79% of global emissions, would meet its 2030 target. The Canadian Minister of the Environment and Climate Change acknowledged publicly in 2019 that, based on currently implemented and planned measures, Canada will not meet the 2030 target.

The New York Times published a story in September, 2019 stating that the United Nations estimated that 60% of the countries party to the Paris agreement had committed to reduce GHG emissions to “net zero” by 2050. The source of this claim is unsubstantiated and cannot be verified on the basis of INDCs that have been filed.


According to the British Petroleum Statistical Review of World Energy, global GHG emissions have risen steadily throughout the period since GHG emission reduction targets were first set. They were 21.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 1990 and they were 34.2 billion tonnes in 2019, a 59% increase.

Canada’s emissions grew from 591 million tonnes in 1990 to 729 million tonnes in 2018, a 23% increase.

After every target is missed, governments adopt more stringent, more difficult to attain, targets.

“Net zero emissions” by 2050 is demonstrably impossible to attain in economic or technological terms, and it would entail unprecedented costs and reductions in standards of living that few, if any, countries living under democratic governments would accept.

The continued practice of adopting more and more expensive and less attainable targets can perhaps only be understood as demonstrations of political cynicism. There is no political “downside” to promising to reduce GHG emissions – only to actually doing so.

That judgement, however, misses an important consideration. Politicians who embrace radical environmental goals yield the moral high ground to the environmental groups; they are forever afterwards vulnerable to unremitting criticism for “breaking their promises”.


  1. peter s. badenoch

    June 19, 2020 at 6:52 pm

    “…Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole also have endorsed this target.” (“net zero” by 2030.)

    Has either of these candidates declared that he has considered the evidence presented by the numerous reputable scientists who refute the IPCC position and its implications, or is it that each sees political expediency as more important than objectivity and being open-minded?

  2. It would help the message if the BP emissions data could be displayed as a graph like the one I have just emailed to Michelle?

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