Two days into her job as a rookie environment minister, Catherine McKenna was sent to Paris for the United Nations climate summit, not knowing what “COP21” — the official phrasing for the 2015 meeting — stood for.
She remembers the momentum: the gathering of countries, the urgency, the ambition, the instruction to work closely with Barack Obama’s U.S. administration, the stunned applause when she stood at the podium and said that “Canada is here to help.”
That fateful day in December 2015, Canada joined 195 other countries in committing for the first time to restricting planetary warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels — an improvement on the two-degree commitment that had become par for the course.
But the momentum didn’t last.
Almost as soon as Canada got serious about the climate change emergency, McKenna and her government began fighting provinces over its plan to uphold its Paris commitments by putting a price on pollution.
“It was a different time, and we got an ambitious agreement because the world really did come together,” McKenna told National Observer in her Toronto ministerial office on Aug. 27. “And then look what happened.”
A year after the Paris Agreement was reached, at 2016’s end, Canada’s neighbour elected Donald Trump on an anti-environment agenda. Despite McKenna’s best efforts, which included asking former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney — the architect of the Canada-U.S. acid rain treaty — for advice on how to keep the United States in the Paris deal, Trump withdrew in June 2017.
The fight at home got more intense as conservative premiers started winning elections. Scott Moe took over from fellow conservative Brad Wall as premier in Saskatchewan in January 2018. Doug Ford ran Kathleen Wynne out of town in Ontario in June 2018, and promptly dismantled her government's cap and trade climate policy. Jason Kenney returned Alberta to conservative government in the summer of 2019, after the oil and gas province's one-term experiment with Rachel Notley's NDP and their first serious climate plan.
These conservative governments and others in Manitoba and New Brunswick are ramping up their fight against carbon pricing, both in court and in the media, as federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer prepares for his own anti-carbon-pricing electoral battle at the ballot box.
In spite of the shifting and often ferocious political winds, McKenna has gone full throttle on a file that hadn’t been tackled seriously by Canada in 20 years. While often derided as “Climate Barbie,” she has had “this one historic shot” — as one environmentalist put it — to lead the Justin Trudeau government’s efforts to chart the way to a low-carbon future for one of the world’s worst polluters.
“Everyone’s always talking about how I’m fighting. I don’t want to fight them. I want to fight climate change. But I’m not going to step back in the face of governments that aren’t going to do what they need to do" - Catherine McKenna
But has she done enough?
“As frustrating as this is, the reality is just too important,” an animated McKenna said in reflecting on her first four years in public office. “Everyone’s always talking about how I’m fighting. I don’t want to fight them. I want to fight climate change. But I’m not going to step back in the face of governments that aren’t going to do what they need to do.”
“We just have to figure out how we move forward,” she added. “You just grind away.”
‘Unprecedented, yet highly insufficient’
During the afternoon the storm clouds rolled into Toronto, after McKenna spent much of the morning traveling east of the city, being what she’s become known as: an eloquent, passionate champion for climate action.
She committed funding to an information centre at Rouge National Urban Park, a sprawling 80-square kilometre area across four Ontario municipalities that hosts some 1,700 species of plants and animals, including 23 that are currently deemed to be at risk.
That commitment was followed by another, this time in the aisles of home improvement retailer Rona, where McKenna announced the creation of a $200-million (over two years) Energy Savings Rebate Program for Ontarians to help reduce their energy use by up to 60 per cent with cheaper smart thermostats or energy-efficient dishwashers.
This rebate program came on the heels of several more through the federal government’s Low Carbon Economy Fund over the past year. The fund has reallocated the equivalent of Ontario’s funding from its now-cancelled cap and trade system into various projects like the 50 Million Tree Program ($15 million over four years) and the Brampton Transit Electric Bus Program ($7.6 million).
The Trudeau government says that since coming to power in 2015 it has invested some $60 billion in efforts to reduce emissions, adapt to a changing climate and support clean-technology innovation and a complete transition from coal to a clean growth economy. And they have doubled the amount of nature conservation over the course of their time in office
As McKenna’s government sets its sights on a second term in office, environmentalists question whether any of this has been effective.
Several experts said the government's Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change is significant as Canada’s first meaningful attempt to cut carbon pollution at the federal level. The shift in discourse that has come from this — most of which is credited to McKenna — has played a role in its success.
“Renaming the office ‘Environment and Climate Change’ was a big thing from Day 1,” Andrea Olive, an associate professor of political science and geography at the University of Toronto, said in an interview.
“Today there’s more people talking about climate change than ever before,” she said. “Some of that has to be related to federal leadership and the spaces they created for this discourse.”
Ottawa-based sustainability consultant Diane Beckett agreed, saying that the government had been very clear in calling the problem one of “climate pollution” and not “climate emissions.”
“The shift in language has been important as it allows us all to finally visualize that we are using our atmosphere as a great big garbage dump,” she said.
The Trudeau government has approved two contentious pipeline projects: the Enbridge Line 3 Pipeline, which would carry oil from Alberta to the U.S. Midwest and beyond, and the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which runs from the oil sands to the ports of British Columbia and which Ottawa bought from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion in 2018.
It has also approved the $11.4-billion Pacific NorthWest liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, at the mouth of British Columbia’s Skeena River, which would threaten the migration of sockeye salmon through the Skeena estuary.
Along the way, conservation experts say protections for species at-risk have not been as stringent as they should be at a time when the world is facing its greatest ever biodiversity crisis.
One climate expert, who wished to remain anonymous to avoid speaking on behalf of their employer, said this all made the Trudeau climate plan “unprecedented, yet highly insufficient.”
“By tying climate action to tarsands and pipeline expansion, the Trudeau government has pitted Canadians against each other,” Beckett said. “Instead, they should have articulated a clear plan for moving Canada off of fossil fuels.
“The economics, technologies and policies are there, and the polls show that Canadians want action on climate change, but the political will is lacking.”
Innovation and an ambiguous relationship with big oil is what many critics have called the Liberals out on.
“Their ongoing support for the oilsands and pipelines is contradictory to a low-carbon economy,” said Dr. Gail Krantzberg, professor of engineering and public policy at McMaster University. “Surely, there are other jobs for Albertans, like innovations in renewable energy.”
It's still too early to say, but critics suggest that without more stringent regulations on the oil and gas industry, Canada will fall short of its international obligations: Environment Canada scientists have warned many times that parts of northern Canada are warming up twice as fast as the rest of the world.
“It will take Canada 200 years to meet our Paris climate targets,” Beckett said. “Yet we have to start reducing our climate emissions next year and cut them in half by 2050, a mere 30 years from now. Instead of reducing our emissions, Canada's climate emissions are increasing and tarsands expansion is being allowed by the government.”
An internal review of the government’s own policies also found that Canada will fall well short of meeting even its 2030 commitments.
But it’s not all McKenna and her government’s fault, said Sara Ferwati, co-founder of Climatable, a Montreal-based non-profit focused on involving Canadians in climate action. Lobbying and pushback is part and parcel of the fabric of the federal political system, and has made climate action difficult.
“I think it may be unfair to say one is to blame, or if we had someone else it would be different,” Ferwati said in a phone interview. “McKenna is one player in a large, complex system facing pushback and lobbying … The fight is a difficult one.”
“The fact is, we need a different frame on how to have climate action outside of the federal government,” she said. “I was more hopeful in seeing more drastic action and targets. I think we’ve seen some initiative, but it’s insufficient in the context of meaningfully mitigating the climate crisis.”
If the choice is between having no climate policy or accepting weak policy, then McKenna and company may be winners, these experts say. But Canadians, they add, deserve more than just those two options.
‘A transition doesn't happen overnight’
“There’s the positive and the negative, but I am a realistic optimist, so I can see both,” McKenna said matter-of-factly, responding to criticism of the Liberals’ climate action plan.
McKenna acknowledged, for example, that the government’s effort to push through the Trans Mountain pipeline — going so far as to buy it outright — makes for a tough juxtaposition next to its climate commitments. But she presented it as part of a pragmatic balancing act appropriate for a temporary period she defines as “Canada is in transition."
“I'm not in the business of pleasing people,” she said. “We need to have an ambitious and pragmatic climate plan and, yes, it is absolutely true that we need to be more ambitious. We have to do more. But this is the transition that everyone knows would be really easy if we didn't have any fossil fuels. If you are not an economy that was natural resource based, transition would be really easy.”
In many ways, McKenna absolves herself with the argument that it was worse when the Conservatives were in power. She harkens back to the Stephen Harper era, when scientists were muzzled and climate change wasn’t a term commonly used.
And the Conservatives’ current plan, she added, “is written by oil lobbyists.”
That plan, presented June 19, intends to reduce emissions through Green Investment Standards, whereby “major emitters” would have to lower their carbon pollution to a standard specific to their industry. It would also require firms to pay for clean technology, reform air quality regulations and provide new tax deductions for industries that can cut emissions in foreign countries.
McKenna believes the plan isn’t strong enough, having previously called it a “fake plan.”
It’s an endless back and forth: she critiques the Conservative plan as they continue to critique hers. Just this week she has come under fire for backtracking her comments on exploring an increase in the carbon price after 2022. Onlookers say if she was serious, she would do what is necessary. Scheer's Conservatives say she's bankrupting Canadians. But she commits to toeing the line with her plan.
“The reality is we're talking about 2040. Making sure all vehicles are electric — that is super ambitious.” McKenna said. “But the reality is people are still using oil and gas. We haven't gotten to the point that there isn't this demand for it.
“This is not an excuse,” she added. “We do need to figure out the transition. But all these things that we're doing are driving different decisions as well. You can't lose sight of that.”
In this back and forth, McKenna says a key crux of her job has been to convey to the average Canadian that the challenge of taking climate action can also improve affordability — always a key focus come election time.
The government will help cover some of the cost to consumers of buying energy-efficient appliances through rebates, for example, which will also enable them to save money on energy bills. It’s a pocketbook argument that takes account of the longer-term, McKenna said: “If there is no planet, there's no economy.”
And while the Conservatives have nevertheless sought to use it to their electoral advantage, calling the carbon-pricing plan “a job-killing carbon tax” and pointing out the Liberals have not committed to an increase after 2022, McKenna stands behind it.
“A transition doesn't happen overnight,” McKenna said. “It doesn't happen without the hard work that comes with it. Policies have to be implemented properly. You have to think about unintended consequences. You do have to consult. Ultimately, you have to just do them.”
“And, then, like every other country, you’ve got to come back and do more,” she added. “The Paris Agreement requires that. And I think, for the first four years, we've implemented what we've said. We literally went from zero to 100.”
Election is coming
McKenna has travelled across the country to deliver her government’s climate plan. She said nowhere in this country is climate devastation more powerfully displayed than in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., an Inuvialuit hamlet north of the Arctic circle.
There, McKenna said, a confluence of the rapid thawing of the permafrost — which has made the ground vulnerable — and extreme storms have destroyed sections of land and left “houses literally hanging by the sea.”
There is no doubt that McKenna is committed to dealing with the global climate emergency. But the effectiveness of her government’s plan remains to be decided by the history books, which are still being written, one court challenge and provincial dissention at a time.
“It is too early to tell. The price on carbon is not high enough to change consumer or industry behaviour. And cap and trade inclusion could force the market upwards and help reduce emissions,” said Krantzberg, the McMaster University professor. “This is good; clearly a climate change strategy is within the federal purview. Pushing hard on climate change mitigation and adaptation responses should be central to the federal government's priorities.”
In this regard, McKenna, as Canada's second-longest-serving environment minister, has been “very passionate, focused, clear and deliberate,” Krantzberg said. “She should have another four years to push the agenda and make more substantive changes.”
Olive, the University of Toronto professor, agrees.
“It’s so hard for the federal government to do anything on climate change because of the way federalism works,” she said. “It’s been a rollercoaster for climate policy, but McKenna has ridden it through.”
The problem, Olive said, is that while the environment has continued to “play hardball,” the Trudeau government has chosen to fight it by compromising and trying to work with provinces.
“That’s commendable, I guess,” she said. “It’s just been difficult. Because we got Trump. And then Scott Moe, Doug Ford and Jason Kenney. And now, maybe Andrew Scheer.”
“That is tough, but that is life,” McKenna said when asked about the reversal of the political context — both at home and abroad — since she went to Paris in 2015. “I wish this wasn't political. I don't think it should be political. But I honestly do not think that there was more we could have done.”
McKenna doesn’t expect high-fives, but remains confident that she — and her government — did everything they could in four years, and worries that all that could be undone in October.