Canada’s new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, doesn’t need to do very much to better his predecessor, Stephen Harper’s abysmal performance fighting climate change. From pulling Canada out of the international Kyoto Accords to gutting our scientific programs to encouraging dubious extraction methods like fracking, the Conservative government dragged our country screaming into the nineteenth century.
At the end of November, Trudeau, Green Party leader Elizabeth May, NDP leader Tom Mulcair, many of the provincial premiers, and other interested parties will attend the international conference on climate change in Paris. In (another) departure from Harper’s policies, Trudeau has offered accreditation to any opposition representatives who want to come along. He’s fulfilling one of his few campaign promises on the subject: during the lead up to the election he was, probably intentionally, vague. There were few specifics, but this will leave him more leeway to negotiate with the provinces, who will have to buy into whatever commitments he makes in Paris. Observers believe that Trudeau won’t actually have to commit to much there: just not being Stephen Harper will be enough to make him one of the darlings of the event.
Trudeau probably didn’t make specific promises because he won’t be able to impose his will on the provinces: they will need to agree and cooperate voluntarily. He and Catherine McKenna, the new Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, need wiggle room to make agreements. When Jean Chretien negotiated at Kyoto, he figured that he would be able to make the provinces do what he wanted. He was wrong and some, like Alberta and Quebec, went their own ways. To be effective, Trudeau and McKenna must sell their policies to all the provinces.
But, they won’t be alone. The Ministers for Science (Dr. Kirsty Duncan, a U of T geography professor), Natural Resources (James Carr, whose website said, “We believe in the balance between resource development and environmental stewardship. A country can’t have an energy policy without an agenda to protect our land, air and water. We have international responsibilities to reduce green-house gas emissions and we should say so with conviction.”), and Fisheries and Oceans (Hunter Tootoo, the first Northern MP to hold this portfolio), will have overlapping interests and responsibilities facing this challenge. Also involved will be former Ryerson University professor Navdeep Singh Bains, whose portfolio includes Economic Development and Science.
Trudeau has made it clear that government by cabinet is back, a departure from Harper’s more centralized style. Amongst the issues that the new Cabinet must address this year are:
· Pipelines—Trudeau has said he supports Keystone XL, Northern Gateway, and the Energy East pipelines, but also will leave the decision to the National Energy Board, the independent agency reporting to the Minister of Natural Resources. Trudeau has said he wants to strengthen the NEB’s powers. These pipelines are intended to carry bitumen and tar sands oil to waiting vessels for export, not even for internal Canadian use, and this will be a significant issue in the years to come.
· Kyoto—Canada was the only country to withdraw from the Kyoto Accords, the only internationally binding agreement on measures to fight climate change. When Jean Chretien signed us up, he assumed it would be “top down,” led by the federal government. But it was impossible to get the provinces to agree, and Alberta was downright hostile. In 2011, claiming that it would save “Canadian taxpayers” $14 billion in penalties for failing to meet Kyoto targets, we bailed. The figure is disputed, and it is unclear whether there would have been any actual penalty for failing to meet targets. To put things into perspective, the US signed but never ratified the agreement; Russia has said it won’t meet second-round targets; and China and India never signed at all.
· Emissions targets: The economic downturns of the last decade meant that Canada’s emissions fell anyway as industry declined. But, we need to ensure that recovery doesn’t mean carte blanche to pollute at higher levels.
· Infrastructure: Trudeau pledged $2 billion per year investment in infrastructure, crucial to Canadians’ quality of life. Our roads are crumbling, our railways are rusting, and we need the means to move goods and resources efficiently and in a way that doesn’t destroy the environment. The new Minister for Infrastructure and Communities, Amarjeet Sohi, drove an Edmonton bus before becoming a local councillor. We’ll see whether he can translate his transit experience to the bigger stage. We need energy efficient public transport, at all levels, but that’s only the beginning.
Despite the previous federal government’s abysmal record, the provinces have been moving ahead independently to face climate change. BC has a carbon tax of $30 per tonne, and Quebec has a “cap and trade” system, which imposes penalties on companies that exceed emissions targets. Working in cooperation with the US state of California, Quebec sets emission caps, and then companies who can’t meet them can buy credits from a central fund. Individuals can buy from the fund and re-sell their certificates with a minimum investment of 1000 tonnes. It is expected that eventually the price will reach $50 per tonne, which makes the certificates a great investment for Quebec residents. Whether or not we should support companies’ paying for environmental “get outta jail free” cards, it’s a start.
Carbon tax/ pricing has been criticized as killing jobs, especially in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but it has to be done. International bodies, including the European Union, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OEDC), and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, amongst others, have called for international cooperation in carbon taxing.
All these issues will affect Canadians in general, demanding that we balance our desire for economic development with sensitive stewardship of our fragile environment. But there are equally important environmental issues that affect only some of the most vulnerable Canadians: our First Nations. As of August 31, 2015, at least 96 First Nations communities were under “boil water advisories,” meaning that their water was not fit to drink. This number does not include First Nations in BC or the Inuit…. Some of these advisories stretch back seventeen years….
Canada’s new Prime Minister carries the weight of huge expectations. His “sunny ways” will only carry him so far, and a number of storm clouds loom on the horizon. But, he has shown he is willing to listen and to consider new ways of governing and of dealing with the wider world. All of us who feel that we now “have our country back” must now get to work. Stephen Harper and the Conservatives are gone but gone with them is the sense that the problems are somebody else’s fault. It’s up to us now and there is a lot to be done….