For millions of Canadians, the recent deal between the Trudeau Liberals and Jagmeet Singh’s NDP will be about progress on pharmacare and coverage of dental services. But for Justin Trudeau, it was almost certainly about buying more time and space to reach his government’s climate goals. Now, with the release of the government’s emissions reduction plan, we know exactly what they look like — and how far away we are from achieving them.
It represents the most ambitious policy objective a Canadian prime minister has laid out since Trudeau’s own father announced his intention to repatriate the Constitution and create a Charter of Rights and Freedoms for Canada.
By 2030, our greenhouse gas emissions are expected to be 40 per cent lower than they were in 2005, a radical transformation of the economy that will be powered by $9.1 billion worth of investments in zero-emission vehicle incentives, a cleaner electrical grid and more carbon capture and storage technology.
It has the backing of high-profile environmentalists like former BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, along with a host of think tanks and policy shops, and it even received praise from the Toronto Regional Board of Trade. Dave Sawyer, a renowned environmental economist with EnviroEconomics, described it as a “serious policy document for a serious issue.”
But if the policy is sound, the politics are a little more suspect.
Monica Gattinger, a director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy and the chair of positive energy at the University of Ottawa, noted the plan still has gaps — and one of the big ones is around affordability. “Durable emissions reductions require approaches that integrate climate and energy imperatives. Without reliable affordable energy, the country will fast lose public and investor support for emissions reductions.”
That’s especially true when the leadership candidates for the country’s biggest and loudest opposition party are still competing with each other over who can be the biggest carbon tax critic. Decarbonizing Canada’s economy on the timelines laid out in this document is a challenge nearly as big as putting a man on the moon was in the 1960s, but at least NASA didn’t have to constantly justify and defend its own existence from one side of the political spectrum.
And then, of course, there’s Alberta. The oil and gas industry, which produced 191 megatonnes of carbon dioxide in 2019, most of which occurred in that province, is being asked to cut emissions to just 110 megatonnes by the end of the decade. That would be a big ask even with a provincial government willing to buy into the plan and its objectives. But Ottawa has just about the opposite in Jason Kenney’s UCP. His environment minister, Jason Nixon, described the plan as “insane,” while opposition leader Rachel Notley was slightly more diplomatic in calling it “a fantasy.”
Given the compressed timelines and major investments that need to be made, this chasm that exists between Ottawa’s ambitions and Alberta’s intentions is a big problem.
Unless Trudeau can find some sort of grand bargain here, as his father did with Peter Lougheed and the notwithstanding clause in 1982, it will almost certainly be insurmountable. Trying to meet emissions reduction targets in Canada without Alberta’s full support is like trying to leave the house with a toddler wrapped around your ankles. Sure, you might be able to move, but you won’t get far or go fast.
Opinion: Trying to meet emissions reduction targets in Canada without Alberta’s full support is like trying to leave the house with a toddler wrapped around your ankles, columnist @maxfawcett writes for @natobserver. #cdnpoli #abpoli
That’s especially true if Alberta’s biggest economic sector continues to believe there’s a free lunch out there just waiting to be served.
In response to the federal plan, Terry Abel, executive vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, trotted out one of his industry’s favourite arguments, which is that the solution to climate change is actually to produce more oil and gas in Canada. “One of the largest contributions Canada can make to lowering global greenhouse gas emissions is by exporting Canadian liquefied natural gas to displace the use of coal in the world’s energy mix,” he said in a statement.
This argument has been knocked down repeatedly, most notably by Jason Dion in a 2019 Policy Options piece. “Countries don’t get credit toward their emissions reduction targets for low-carbon exports because the global GHG accounting system doesn’t work that way,” he wrote.
“Countries know that reductions in their emissions have value,” he added. “They won’t let others get credit for them for nothing.” In other words, if we want the credit for those LNG exports and the emissions they theoretically abate, someone’s going to have to pay for them.
If the biggest lobby group for Canada’s oil and gas industry is still throwing up smokescreens like this, it doesn’t bode well for the federal government’s plans. It stands to reason that after watching environmental activists kill their pipeline projects with procedural delays and other clock-management strategies, the industry may want to return the favour. Just listen to Kendall Dilling, the interim director of the Oil Sands Pathway to Net Zero Alliance, who said: “We also need to recognize the time required to build the infrastructure, deploy the necessary technology, secure appropriate regulatory approvals, and implement economic incentives to achieve these reductions.”
Now it’s up to Trudeau to decide how he’s going to break through this resistance, and whether it involves more carrots or sticks. The good news is he has at least three years to work with. The bad news is that may not be nearly enough time to get it done.