How does Canada rate in fighting climate change?
Better than most countries, especially ones where fossil fuels drive politics.
Terribly for the world, because if every country copied Canada, that would ensure climate catastrophe.
That’s the complicated picture climate policy experts in Canada and abroad shared with The Tyee.
They said Canada, while still far from where it needs to be in lowering its greenhouse gas emissions, is enacting “courageous” and “interesting” policies that are pushing global progress forward at a time when the opportunity for action is rapidly fading.
On the surface this doesn’t seem to make much sense, given that under Trudeau’s Liberal government Canada is set to miss the 2030 climate targets it agreed to at Paris, spends billions of dollars propping up the oil and gas industry (despite promising to end fossil fuel subsidies), and last year nationalized Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline for $4.5 billion.
But Mark Jaccard, a professor in the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University who has contributed to assessments from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says that Canada’s record on climate change is more complex and productive than most people realize.
“It seems to me people get so focussed on the Trans Mountain pipeline as a symbol that the federal government has failed on climate policy, without paying attention to the actual policies and comparing them to the rest of the world,” he told The Tyee. “When you do that, we’re among the leaders.”
Outside experts contacted by The Tyee largely backed up Jaccard’s analysis.
“My perception is of Canada doing the right thing, but like most countries Canada not doing enough, but that being quite understandable given the very difficult politics for a large fossil fuel-producing country,” said Frank Jotzo, director of the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at the Australian National University, as well as an IPCC contributor and advisor to organizations like the World Bank.
Robert Stavins, a professor of energy and economic development at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, who has also consulted for government agencies and international organizations, said that participants in the global policy community “view Canada as a progressive force, along with the countries of the European Union and New Zealand.”
‘Courageous’ stand on climate
With a population of only 37 million people spread out over a vast geographic territory, Canada has nowhere near the global influence of superpowers like the U.S. or China. But its relatively large economy and historically close ties with the U.S. and the European Union lend it a middle-power status that can — should federal leaders choose to — be leveraged to advance progress on complex global challenges.
“If you’re a small country you can set an example for others and also try to be part of a global movement, and this is exactly what Canada is doing,” said Jaccard, emphasizing that he’s a non-partisan observer who bases his conclusions on evidence and impact.
Though Canada only contributes about 1.6 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, it has some of the highest emissions per person in the world. And climate change is affecting Canada two times as fast as the rest of the planet, according to a federal government report released in early April. That makes the country a potent case study for the devastation to come from rising global temperatures, and also a potential model for policies to prevent it.
Earlier this spring, Canada officially enacted a national price on carbon emissions, which the New York Times refers to as “one of the most ambitious carbon pricing programs in the world.” The policy, which the federal Conservatives led by Andrew Scheer have vowed to immediately repeal if they win the fall election, has certain features that make it potentially relevant to other countries.
The policy sets out a minimum carbon price of $20 per ton of emissions, which will then rise to $50 by 2022. Each province, however, is given the flexibility to determine how that price will actually be implemented — whether through an economy-wide tax like in B.C., for example, or Quebec’s system of cap and trade.
“It is an interesting approach in a country like Canada, and for that matter a country like the United States, where the federal government is important but the provinces and states under a federal system are also very important and have substantial authority,” Stavins said. “We’ll have to see whether it’s successful.”
That’s very much an open question — as Jotzo knows full well. In 2012, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard brought in a national carbon tax, only to be defeated in a 2013 election by the right-wing Liberal Party led by Tony Abbott. With the support of the country’s powerful coal industry, Abbott then scrapped the tax.
“So, from an Australian point of view, the decision to enact a nation-wide minimum carbon price that the Canadian government took looked very courageous,” Jotzo said, “recognizing the fact that some of Canada’s provinces are very fossil fuel intensive.” Just like in Australia, the fossil fuel industry here is fighting back.
Earlier this month, the Globe and Mail revealed that Scheer had a secret meeting with Calgary oil executives about how to dismantle Trudeau’s environmental policies. Meanwhile, anti-carbon price groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation have studied Australia’s repeal campaign.
Phasing out coal
Canada’s carbon price, and the direction it could potentially provide to countries like the U.S., is not the only climate policy on the line in the upcoming election. Unbeknownst to most Canadians, the federal Liberals are also leading a global effort to transition the world off of the dirtiest and most damaging of fossil fuels: coal.
Canada and the U.K. in 2017 founded the Powering Past Coal Alliance, a group that now counts 30 countries and 22 subnational governments as members. Germany, one of the heaviest coal users in Europe, but which was advised it could feasibly shift off the fossil fuel within the next two decades, is one of the latest countries to join. Canada itself has committed to a full phase-out by 2030, while the U.K. has dropped its reliance on coal from 40 to five per cent over the past decade.
“That alliance is part of a fast rising recognition globally that coal will no longer be growing and will be on a declining path in the future,” Jotzo said. “To my mind the Powering Past Coal Alliance is a signal that the impending end of coal is being recognized in the mainstream of economic policymaking.”
Initiatives like this can potentially have an impact in corporate boardrooms across the world. Not only does the alliance make it harder for new coal projects to gain regulatory approval, it may also guide decisions by banks and investors. “They will demand an extra premium in expected returns from coal projects because the activity itself is seen as highly risky,” Jotzo said.
Yet none of that changes the reality that Canada is set to overshoot its 2030 Paris climate targets, largely due to emissions from the oil sands. The country’s environment commissioner Julie Gelfand earlier this year called the Trudeau government’s slow progress “disturbing.”
“For decades, successive federal governments have failed to reach their targets for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, and the government is not ready to adapt to a changing climate,” Canada’s environmental watchdog declared. “This must change.”
Jotzo agrees “that this is a serious thing,” explaining, “any country that’s not on track to meeting the existing relatively weak target has some questions to ask as to how ambition can be lifted.”
If the world cannot keep global temperature rise below two degrees, the impacts will be especially dire for Canada — a fire season that makes last year’s B.C. wildfires look quaint, the permanent flooding of Richmond, rapid spreading of pine-beetles and Lyme-disease-carrying ticks, virtually all freshwater glaciers vanishing, ice-free Arctic Ocean summers, 50-year floods in Halifax every two years.
By some measurements Canada seems helpless to make a difference.
“What you have to keep in mind is the most important countries to look at for action are not the European Union, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan,” Stavins said. “It’s the large emerging economies of China, India, Brazil, Korea, South Africa, Mexico and Indonesia, that’s where the growth in emissions is.”
And though Jaccard agrees — “Canada acting or not acting is never going to save the planet,” he said — he argues our actions can and do matter. Canada, he says, has a crucial role to play in accelerating progress in the countries that will decide the world’s fate.
“What you have to do as a small player is act in a strategic way,” Jaccard explained. “We have a federal government right now that’s trying to do that.”
For how long, though? With conservatives scheming with oil companies to undo Canada’s climate progress and many Canadians unaware of the positive role we’re playing internationally, the answer is murky. Fall’s election may bring some clarity.