Canada’s National Observer asked federal Liberal Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson about critical issues in the upcoming election, and how his party would respond to the climate crisis.

(This interview has been edited for brevity.)

What is the No. 1 most-pressing issue facing Canadians this upcoming term?

I would say in the short term, it's about getting through the remainder of COVID. But I think the biggest challenge facing us in the next four years is the climate challenge. It is, without a doubt, an existential threat. Taking bold action — and that means not just coming up with ideas and talking about targets, it means actually putting in place detailed measures that will help us to move towards the targets that are informed by science — is perhaps the most critical thing facing us as a society.

What other issues are top of mind for you?

Related to the climate issue is thinking forward about how we're going to build an economy that actually will create jobs and economic opportunity for us as we move through a very significant economic transition over the coming number of decades. So, thinking very seriously and creatively about how we actually build an economy that will thrive, an economy that will work in all regions of the country, understanding that economic drivers in different areas are quite different, I think that would be the next one. The third one is an issue of particular importance for young people, which is around housing and ensuring we can create opportunities for young people to be able to rent and for many, eventually, to be able to buy homes.

When it comes to the climate, where should we be concentrating our efforts?

You have to start by asking: Where are the major sources of emissions? Because those are the areas where you need to make the most rapid progress. In Canada, those would be transportation, the oil and gas sector, industrial emissions, and buildings. As I have said before, those (plans) need to be detailed; they can't just be aspirational at this point. For example, in transportation, it's about building out refuelling infrastructure for zero-emission vehicles, providing subsidies for people to be able to purchase zero-emission vehicles, and using regulatory tools. We have said that by 2035, we will not have internal combustion engine vehicles sold in this country, and 50 per cent of cars sold by 2030 must be zero-emission vehicles. It's a very specific plan to reduce emissions, and we've done that in every sector — that's what you have to do if you really expect to see progress.

What do you think about Canada's Paris target? How can we get there?

.@JonathanWNV affirms the @Liberal_Party promise to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies by 2023, saying this won't apply to subsidies with environmental benefit, like remediating orphan wells. #cdnpoli #elxn44

In December, the prime minister and I announced Canada's strengthened climate plan to demonstrate to Canadians that you could put together a detailed climate plan showing how to not only meet but exceed the existing Paris target. Criticism in the past about governments has been that they've had targets, but haven't had plans and never achieved targets. Now, we have one of the most detailed climate plans that exists anywhere in the world.

The Paris targets are one thing, but what is Canada's path to net-zero emissions?

The first step is actually having a target for 2030 that will enable us to say there is a pathway to 2050. It has to be sufficiently aggressive that you make significant strides between now and 2030, which we have done through the strengthened climate plan, plus some additional work. We have also appointed a net-zero advisory body to help us to delineate the pathways on a sector-by-sector basis to get to net-zero by 2050, and will be working with them on that overarching plan. The Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, now embedded in law, requires governments to bring forward a new plan every five years that will demonstrate how they will achieve ever more ambitious targets as you move down that pathway.

Your party platform commits to eliminating fossil fuel subsidies by 2023 instead of 2025. What spurred the promise to end the subsidies earlier, and what does this commitment entail?

We all are of the view that the world needs to go faster in addressing climate change, and part of that is eliminating fossil fuel subsidies. We had committed to phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies alongside other G20 countries by 2025, and a number have already been eliminated or reduced. We are about to go through a peer-review process with Argentina where we assess what they are doing, they assess what we are doing, and identify areas where more work needs to be done. The platform accelerates the commitments, so we will be in a position to say we've eliminated all of those by 2023.

But there's an important point to be made here, which is there are often discussions going on about what is a fossil fuel subsidy. I think this is a point where the NDP and we violently disagree. (Jagmeet) Singh, in his announcement, pointed to things like orphan well cleanup and the wage subsidy that was provided during the COVID pandemic as fossil fuel subsidies. Those aren't fossil fuel subsidies. Orphan wells are an environmental liability. We absolutely are committed to eliminating fossil fuel subsidies that are incenting the production and exploration of oil and gas, but it doesn't include things that are good for the environment, like remediating orphan wells or programs focused on cutting emissions.

Over what timeframe can Canadians expect public financing for the fossil fuel sector to be phased out?

That is certainly work that has been ongoing with Export Development Canada and the Business Development Bank of Canada. They have all made commitments to aligning their portfolios with net-zero by 2050, and making significant reductions in the amount of support that is provided to fossil fuels. We obviously need to accelerate that.

Jonathan Wilkinson and Terry Beech visit Maplewood Flats Conservation Area to plant seedlings as part of the Liberal government's commitment to plant two billion trees. Photo provided by Jonathan Wilkinson

To the Liberal Party, does non-green hydrogen produced from gas make sense as a climate solution?

I think the discussion around hydrogen needs to be around the carbon intensity of the hydrogen that is produced, and we do see pathways to utilize natural gas to produce hydrogen in a manner that is either very low- or zero-CO2. Some of the new technologies that have been developed will capture up to 95 per cent of (CO2).

Does this mean carbon capture technology is something we really need in our toolbox?

I think the IEA has said it is a critical part of getting to net-zero by 2050. There are some industries that are going to be very difficult to decarbonize, like cement, and as we work towards solutions that ultimately will be zero-carbon, there will be a need through this transition for carbon capture and storage. But you don't want to oversell that. This is not a silver bullet in terms of climate change, it is one tool amongst many that can be part of getting us to the net-zero future we want.

What will the role of nuclear energy be moving forward?

It's an important part of the energy mix in this country right now, and the discussion in Canada has largely been around small modular reactors. We are interested in all non-emitting technologies. We are in a climate emergency; it would be irresponsible not to consider all non-emitting technologies, so the exploration of small modular reactors is important. But when they become commercial products, which they are not today, they will have to compete in the marketplace of other non-emitting technologies. If it can compete, there will be a role for it. And if it can't compete, then it won't.

What is the single most important and time-sensitive step you think Canada needs to take to address climate change?

Helping industries to decarbonize. Moving very aggressively on transportation is also critical because it takes time to achieve 100 per cent zero-emission vehicle sales. The last thing I would say is around adaptation. We urgently need to adapt to some of the impacts of climate change that we've seen even this summer. Climate change is with us now, it will be with us tomorrow, and next year and the year after, and we need to actually be prepared for some of the impacts that are going to come even if we dramatically reduce emissions over the coming 10 years.

Jonathan Wilkinson delivering lawn signs to supporters in North Vancouver as a part of the 2021 campaign. Photo provided by Jonathan Wilkinson

How will your party ensure a timely just transition for Canadians, especially those working in the energy sector?

The government of Canada needs to ensure it's working on behalf of citizens in all regions of this country. The regions that will go through the most significant transition are those where hydrocarbons are produced today. That's Alberta, Saskatchewan, Newfoundland and Labrador, and, to a certain extent, parts of British Columbia. A just transition is about economic diversification, skills training and development to ensure people can move to the jobs that will come in the context of greening the economy. In Budget 2021, we included significant funding for skills training, and in the platform, we committed to a $2-billion futures fund to enable workers and communities to work on economic diversification and create good jobs that will be sustainable in the context of a low-carbon future.

What makes your party best-positioned to tackle the immense challenge of climate change?

We've recognized that in order to make progress in this area, you have to develop a very detailed and very comprehensive plan. We spent a lot of time doing that to ensure we actually understood all the different mechanisms required to reduce emissions on a pace that is consistent with our targets and net-zero by 2050. But it's also because we understand the economic opportunity and want to be at the forefront of ensuring that Canada seizes those benefits.

On the one hand, you have Mr. O'Toole, who is going to roll back the climate target to the Harper-era target, and to be honest with you, he runs a party which doesn't even believe climate change is real. On the other hand, the New Democrats, I think, are very well-meaning and certainly are committed to addressing the climate issue but fundamentally do not understand the economy. We are best placed because we actually understand both sides of that equation and developed a robust plan. We are in a position to actually make the kind of progress that I think Canadians expect their government to make.

This is the third in a weekly series of Q&As with the major federal parties in the lead-up to the Sept. 20 election. You can read the first instalment here and the second here.

Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

Keep reading

Liberal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson talks out of both sides of his mouth.
On the day the latest IPCC report came out, Environment Minister "Wilkinson reaffirmed Canada's commitment to phasing out fossil fuels and achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but said achieving that target will require money generated by fossil fuels."
"Ottawa says it needs revenue generated by the Trans Mountain pipeline to fight climate change" (CBC, 9-Aug-21)
Pipelines to fight climate change. Anyone who can't see the problem with that, raise your hand.
A thriving oil industry will only delay the transition. Canada does not need fossil fuel dollars to fund the transition. Like selling cigarettes to cure lung cancer. If Trudeau has billions of (our) dollars for pipelines, he has billions of dollars for renewables. Transitions start by moving in the direction you wish to travel. Doubling down on fossil fuels takes us in the wrong direction. Building fossil-fuel infrastructure locks us into a fossil-fuel future. When you're in a hole, stop digging.
The Liberals plan to "green" fossil fuels, not get off them. Trudeau & Co. are following Big Oil's playbook: delay, delay, delay. The oil & gas industry, and their financial and political backers, are banking on global climate action failure. The only scenario in which oilsands expansion makes sense.
IEA's Net-Zero by 2050 report says no new investment in fossil fuels to contain global warming to 1.5 C. The Liberals reject the IEA's conclusions and every IPCC report likewise. So does the oil industry, obviously.

Trudeau's plan to fail:
- Increase fossil fuel production.
- Purchase of the existing Trans Mtn pipeline.
- Promotion and construction of the Trans Mtn Expansion Project.
- Expand markets.
- Greenlight new LNG projects.
- Ramp up fossil-fuel subsidies.
- Stick taxpayers with clean-up bills, even for multi-billion dollar oil companies (e.g., CNRL).
- Grossly under-report oil & gas emissions.
- Creative accounting to erase emissions from the balance sheet.
- Dubious carbon offsets.
- Aspirational net-zero targets decades out into the future (2050) with no roadmap to meet them.
- Planned billion dollar investments in costly, inefficient, unviable, unproven, or non-existent technologies like carbon capture and SMRs (for oilsands industry).
- Accountability legislation without real teeth.

EVs are not green. EV subsidies mainly flow to the wealthy, who can afford EVs without subsidies. EV subsidies are inefficient. The govt should increase the carbon price and fund public transit.
Wilkinson: "Now, we have one of the most detailed climate plans that exists anywhere in the world."
The Liberals plan to fail on climate — just a little more slowly than the Conservatives.
The OECD, the UN, and the federal Environment Commissioner all warn that Canada is NOT on track to meet its targets. The main stumbling block? Increasing oilsands emissions.
"Pembina Institute and Simon Fraser University’s School of Resource and Energy Management assessed every province, territory and the federal government on 24 indicators that are foundational to climate success. The findings are published in 'All Hands on Deck: An assessment of provincial, territorial and federal readiness to deliver a safe climate'. The analysis found that NOT A SINGLE GOVERNMENT is fully prepared to help deliver a safe climate —"
"Without a Team Canada approach on climate, we risk getting left behind" (National Observer, July 28th 2021)
Whether we drive over the climate cliff at 100 kmh or 50 kmh, the result is the same.
Want to fail on climate? Vote Liberal.

Wilkinson: "We had committed to phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies"
I.e., the Liberals will maintain "efficient" fossil fuel subsidies. Aren't "efficient" subsidies the ones we should be worrying about? Talk of "inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption" is splitting hairs. We need to eliminate virtually all fossil fuel combustion — not just wasteful consumption.
Wilkinson: "orphan well cleanup and the wage subsidy that was provided during the COVID pandemic as fossil fuel subsidies. Those aren't fossil fuel subsidies."
Nonsense. A subsidy is any form of financial support, benefit, or allowance to industry (or consumers) that benefits the bottom line. Sticking taxpayers with industry's costs for cleanup and emissions reduction is an obvious subsidy. The savings goes directly to the industry's bottom line and into shareholder's pockets.
Ottawa handed over hundreds of millions of tax dollars to hugely profitable companies that don't need subsidies.
1) "$100 million in federal funding for cleanup of Alberta oil and gas wells went to sites licensed to CNRL" (The Narwhal, May 7, 2021)
"Canadian Natural Resources Limited — which has reported an average annual profit of $1.9 billion over the last decade — benefited most from taxpayer-funded cleanup of derelict wells"
2) "Canadian Natural expects to generate between $2 billion and $2.5 billion of profit in 2021, based on benchmark oil prices of $45 US per barrel. This week, prices are around $60 US." (CBC, 2021)
"Banking on technologies like hydrogen and CCS without complementary supply-side restrictions is particularly concerning when those solutions will facilitate increased fossil fuel production over the next decades."
In Conversation: Ottawa is Continuing Its ‘One Eye Shut’ Climate Policy, Carter and Dordi Say (Energy Mix, May 6, 2021)
"Report: Correcting Canada’s 'one eye shut' climate policy"

Other federal subsidies include investing in carbon capture and small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs) to reduce the fossil fuel industry's upstream emissions — and keep the industry on life support for decades.
"Chair of UK hydrogen body quits over support for fossil-fuel dependent ‘blue hydrogen’ championed by Tories" (The Independent, Aug 19, 2021)
"The chair of the UK Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (UK HFCA) has quit, saying he cannot support the body’s support for so-called 'blue hydrogen', which scientists have warned could not only boost emissions of GHGs but also 'lock in' dependency on them.
"He described the technology as 'an expensive distraction' which could ultimately serve to undermine critical climate targets.
"'I believe passionately that I would be betraying future generations by remaining silent on that fact that blue hydrogen is at best an expensive distraction, and at worst a lock-in for continued fossil fuel use that guarantees we will fail to meet our decarbonisation goals.'
"His comments come after research released this month by academics at Cornell and Stanford universities warned that the blue hydrogen process could generate 20% more emissions over its life cycle than burning the natural gas in the first instance – and possibly even more."
Conservative-led provinces in Canada have embraced SMRs to give the impression that they are doing something about climate change when they are not. SMRs are not ready to go, whereas renewables are, and at lower cost. SMRs are a delay tactic.