A bevy of climate policies championed by Trudeau have not yet translated into steep pollution cuts
Author of the article:
Zahra Hirji and Akshat Rathi
Oct 20, 2022 • 10 hours ago • 8 minute read • 19 Comments
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pitches Canada as a global climate leader, one that’s adopted increasingly bold climate targets and policies under his watch. But Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions tell an entirely different story.
In the seven years since Trudeau took office, emissions have plateaued while Canada’s economy has grown eight per cent. A cleaner electric grid coexists with even more extraction and burning of oil. But all of Canada’s peers in the Group of Seven, or G7, have managed to achieve economic growth while simultaneously cutting emissions, and Canada’s environmental commissioner says the country is struggling to bend the emissions curve. Among the Group of 20 major economies, or G20, Canada ranks behind only Saudi Arabia when it comes to per capita emissions, and ahead of Australia.
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Trudeau sees it differently, and this week he defended his track record in an interview with Bloomberg Green in Ottawa. “We put forward not just targets but a plan to reach those targets that included, for the first time, a broad-based price on pollution,” he said. Setting up the price, which will continue to increase until 2030, was a “political challenge,” and Trudeau acknowledged “it’s taking a while” for the impact to show up on emissions.
At a conference organized by the Canadian Climate Institute and the Net-Zero Advisory Body, the prime minister cited the political challenges of implementing climate policies, the uphill battle against his predecessor’s legacy, and the inevitability of a more rapid transition spurred by Russia’s war on Ukraine. But as Trudeau sees it, Canada also doesn’t need to eliminate fossil-fuel production to reach its climate goals. In fact, oil output will continue to increase for some time. “Canada is positioned to be the supplier of energy in a net-zero world,” he said. “If the companies can cut emissions, then there is room within that to increase production.”
Canada is positioned to be the supplier of energy in a net-zero world
Canada’s problem isn’t a lack of climate commitment but flawed implementation, according to a dozen climate experts in government, academia, think tanks and lobbying groups. The country has issued nine climate plans since 1990. The first, implemented by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, sought to stabilize Canada’s emissions at 1990 levels by 2000. Since then emissions have instead climbed by 27 per cent.
“Our track record is not good,” said Kathryn Harrison, a political science professor who studies climate change at the University of British Columbia.
Much of the blame may lie on former prime minister Stephen Harper, whose anti-environmental policies from 2006 to 2015 turned the country into a climate laggard. Reports revealed how government scientists were silenced at the time, while activists protesting the expansion of oilsands crude were subject to intense audits by the Canada Revenue Agency and the human role of climate change was watered down in an official memo. Perhaps most notably, no rigorous climate policies or targets were put in place.
“Trudeau’s government came into power on the heels of a decade-long federal government that not only ignored climate policy, but actively worked to dismantle any existing climate policy,” said Catherine Abreu, founder of climate organization Destination Zero and a member of the Net-Zero Advisory Body. This all meant that the new government had a “tremendous amount of catching up” to do.
Trudeau is all too aware of those hurdles. “Over many decades, different parties, including my own, put forward plans on fighting climate change or targets around fighting climate change that didn’t relate necessarily to concrete plans,” he said in the interview. “So in 2015, we decided to turn that around.”
Starting that year, Canada helped negotiate and then subsequently ratified the landmark Paris Agreement. Around this time, global climate politics underwent a seismic shift when Donald Trump took over as United States president, prompting America to backslide on its climate commitments and leave behind a vacuum of global leadership.
Trudeau tried to step in. Canada ratified the Kigali Amendment in 2017 to phase out hydrofluorocarbons, a set of potent greenhouse gases that are used as refrigerants. It then went on to implement a national carbon pricing scheme in 2019. And after the country set an initial target to cut climate pollution 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, the target was upped last year to as much as a 45 per cent reduction by 2030.
Canada has committed to phase out coal and to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas by at least 75 per cent from 2012 levels by 2030. Steven Guilbeault, Canada’s minister of environment, said this week that the country is on track to cut methane emissions by more than 40 per cent by 2025.
Yet even under Trudeau’s climate-oriented government, oil and gas production has expanded. “We’re still a country that relies heavily on fossil carbon extraction,” said Jerry DeMarco, who as Canada’s commissioner of environment and sustainable development scrutinizes whether government policies deliver on their promises. “But that’s not the way to get to net zero.”
Meanwhile, the planet has already warmed 1.2 C compared to preindustrial times, ushering in worse impacts than scientists had anticipated and all but guaranteeing more heatwaves, floods, droughts and other environmental impacts ahead. Just last year, Canada’s highest ever temperature of 49.6 C (121 F) was recorded in the British Columbia town of Lytton during a climate-fuelled heat wave. The town burned to the ground during an unprecedented wildfire days later.
“There has definitely been movement on the policy front and they are slowly implementing,” said Claire Stockwell, a senior climate policy analyst at Climate Analytics. Canada’s climate targets are roughly in line with a 2 C world, per her team’s analysis, but the policy on the books through at least 2020 is more in line with catastrophic warming of 4 C.
“When you look at the scale of the problem and the speed with which we need to act, it is not happening fast enough,” Stockwell said.
Trudeau’s government has managed to get some politically hard climate policies over the finish line, “and the hardest one arguably was carbon pricing,” said Harrison. The government set an initial benchmark price at $50 per metric ton, lasting through 2022. Later, Canada announced this price would increase up to $170 per ton by 2030 with incremental bumps each year. “That’s a significant carbon price,” said Harrison.
The provinces of Ontario and Alberta dominate the emissions picture in Canada, and their diverging emissions underscore the country’s struggles to make climate progress. Between 2005 and 2019, Ontario’s emissions dropped 21 per cent, according to an analysis by the Canadian charity Pembina Institute, thanks largely to its move away from coal-fired power plants. By contrast, Alberta’s emissions rose 17 per cent over that same time period. Home to oilsands, which is among the dirtiest fossil fuels, Alberta is one of the few provinces that doesn’t have either a 2030 or 2050 climate target.
It is not happening fast enough
Claire Stockwell, senior climate policy analyst, Climate Analytics
Under Trudeau’s leadership, Canada’s oil production has increased about 25 per cent and gas production has increased seven per cent, according to BP Plc’s 2022 Statistical Review of World Energy. While the government nixed Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway pipeline, it approved two others at the same time: Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline and Kinder Morgan Inc.’s Trans Mountain pipeline.
Yet the oil and gas sector’s emissions have remained flat in the Trudeau era. That’s because increased emissions from oilsands have been compensated for with a reduction in emissions from conventional oil drilling. The industry has also become more carbon efficient and avoided some emissions through carbon capture and sequestration.
Emissions in the transport sector have increased rapidly, and Canadians are less likely than Americans to consider electric cars for their next purchase. “Climate is a shared responsibility,” said Pembina Institute’s deputy executive director, Simon Dyer, “but we are not running in the right direction at many levels of government.”
Next month, Trudeau will head to Egypt for COP27, a yearly United Nations climate conference, touting the climate plan he released in March 2022 — a detailed roadmap for how the government intends to slash emissions by at least 40 per cent by the end of the decade. The to-do list includes directing billions of dollars into climate mitigation and adaptation for everything from grid modernization to nature-based solutions. The plan also doubles down on Trudeau’s commitment, first made in a speech at COP26 last year, to cap emissions in the oil and gas sector. The Canadian government has been meeting with various stakeholders to determine what the cap will look like.
After fighting for a price on pollution at home, Trudeau plans to make the case for one on the global stage. “More countries need to be able to adopt pricing on carbon pollution,” he said. Canada and Germany are leading a plan to ensure rich countries deliver on US$100 billion in annual funding to help poor countries build projects that cut emissions and adapt to a warming planet.
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The environment ministry confirmed that Canada will also push for “loss and damage” to make the COP27 agenda. Developing countries welcome the discussion on how rich countries, which have contributed most to the climate problem, plan to compensate for the damages caused by its impacts — something they agreed to do under the Paris Agreement. While Denmark has already made a tiny contribution toward a loss-and-damage fund, no other rich country has yet stepped up. Trudeau declined to say whether Canada would contribute to the fund.
Despite Trudeau’s global posturing, political challenges linger at home. The 2021 elections left his Liberal Party with a minority government. For now a deal with the progressive New Democratic Party has allowed it to get through important legislation, but the opposition conservative parties, which lead governments in many provinces including Alberta and Ontario, continue to be a pressure point. Even without that opposition, the climate payoff of Canada’s policies could take years to be realized.
“There are still people who are hellbent on reversing our approach on fighting climate change and repealing a price on pollution,” Trudeau said, adding later: “There have been decades of people saying we’re going to act to fight climate change and what we’ve seen over the past seven years is it’s hard to actually do it.”