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Federal Politics
Election 2021

Wilkinson Defends the Liberal Climate Record: ‘We’ve Changed the Trajectory’

Emissions have not dropped under their governance. Still, the North Van candidate insists the plan is working.

Andrew MacLeod 16 Sep

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria and the author of All Together Healthy (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018). Find him on Twitter or reach him at .

The Liberal commitment to addressing climate change is real, says Jonathan Wilkinson, the North Vancouver MP who has served the last two years as the minister of environment and climate change in the federal government.

“What I would say about our plan is it is far more comprehensive and way more detailed than any of the other climate plans,” said Wilkinson. “It’s great to be aspirational, but aspiration only takes you so far. You have to actually then put that in concrete terms.”

But while Wilkinson says the Liberals have a solid plan that given time will bring greenhouse gas emissions down, opponents and some critics say voters should be skeptical given the party’s record of expressing good intentions while emissions rose. Actions like buying the Trans Mountain pipeline and working to see it completed will make targets even harder to hit, they say.

Others, including some experts in the field, say the Liberals have the best plan on offer this election.

Over the last three decades, a period where Liberal and Conservative parties formed the government roughly an equal amount of time, emissions have risen despite commitments to cut them.

851px version of GHGEmissionsCanadaGraph1.jpg
Greenhouse gas emissions in Canada from 1990-2019. Graph via the Government of Canada.

In 1992, when Canada first signed an international climate treaty, the country produced 600 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. By 2019, emissions had risen to 730 megatonnes, a more than a 20-per-cent increase.

The record makes it easy to cast doubt on the Liberal approach, as NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh did during the English language leaders’ debate last week.

“What we shouldn’t do is what Mr. Trudeau did, set targets and miss them,” said Singh. “We shouldn’t promise to end fossil fuel subsidies and then increase them. We shouldn’t put a price on pollution and then exempt the biggest polluters.”

The most recent analysis on the Climate Action Tracker website suggests a pattern. Despite commitments made on the campaign trail the last time Canadians voted in a federal election — held after four years of majority Liberal government — there was little action in the months following the vote, it said.

It rates Canada’s climate action as “insufficient” and “inconsistent with holding warming below 2 degrees.”

Wilkinson has heard the criticisms but insists the government has made progress in the last two years.

“I recognize that people say, ‘Well, emissions haven’t gone down,’ but at least for this government I would tell you what we’ve done is we’ve changed the trajectory of emissions,” Wilkinson said.

When the Liberals came to power in 2015, emissions were projected to be as much as 15 per cent above 2005 levels in 2030. Now they are one per cent below 2005 levels and predicted to drop each year, Wilkinson said.

“I understand some people will say, ‘Well, show me,’ and we will show you over the course of the coming years if the Canadian public decides to return us to office,” he said. “We have broken the arc of the upward trajectory of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, and we put in place the measures that are going to see the reductions going forward.”

As for why past Canadian governments including Liberal ones missed targets, Wilkinson blames setting ambitious targets without doing the work to make sure they were met.

“I think they’ve not been met under previous government in large measure because they were too aspirational, and there wasn’t enough detail in terms of how they were actually going to achieve them,” he said.

“There was also a tendency in the past to simply wish on technology as something that would save us, that it would actually do the work on its own.”

Before getting into politics, Wilkinson ran clean tech companies for 15 years. “Technology is really important, but it is not a silver bullet and it is not the driver,” he said. Governments need to incentivize developing the technology, but they also have to make sure it gets deployed, he said.

In December, the government released a strengthened climate plan for how Canada could meet or exceed its targets, Wilkinson said, then built on it with investments in the budget. It has since raised the target, aiming for at least a 40-per-cent reduction from 2005 levels, he said, and the Liberal election platform puts forward plans that would get the country there.

While putting a rising price on carbon is key, as the federal government has done since 2019, Wilkinson said any plan needs to be wide ranging.

“It is perhaps the most detailed climate plan that exists anywhere on the planet,” he said. “It’s hard to point out one specific element because of course, if you’re going to have a credible climate plan it actually has to address all of the major sources of emission, and that means transportation and oil and gas, buildings and electricity generation, waste.”

The government is taking steps, some of which are underway and some of which still need to be started, to address all of those sources of emissions, he said, adding that the overall vision is to build a strong economy in the context of a lower-carbon future.

Measures include subsidies for electric vehicles that help people make choices that reduce emissions, he said. They also, in some cases, include a firm regulatory backstop. “We did that with coal, where we made the decision to phase out thermal coal,” he said. The government has committed to phasing out using coal to produce power domestically by 2030.

The Liberal plan has had some high-profile endorsements, including from Mark Jaccard, a Simon Fraser University environmental economics professor who also has a company that consults on energy and climate policy for governments, political parties and other clients.

He scored the Liberals higher than other parties “for their performance from 2015 to 2021 as the first federal government to be honest about the necessary policies and their costs.”

Jaccard criticized the Liberals for upping their target without at the same time saying how they would meet it, but said they’ve since provided more details. “During this election campaign, they’ve unveiled these policies and they are likely to achieve their target, which is good,” he said. “But they should have made efforts to implement these policies as a minority government before calling an election.”

He scored the Conservatives “substantially lower” than the Liberals, saying that their target for reductions was more modest, but that they did have a plan that would meet it. He added they have a “credibility challenge” because past federal and provincial Conservative governments have been insincere about reducing emissions. “One hopes the 2021 federal Conservatives are different, but the Canadian voter should be wary.”

Jaccard was even tougher on the Greens and NDP, saying, “It’s misleading to tell Canadians we can magically eliminate 50 per cent and more of our GHG emissions in just nine years, without enormous cost and disruption, especially for certain workers and regions.”

Seth Klein, the author of A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, wrote a rebuttal saying that bold thinking and ambitious goals are desperately needed and that voters will have to decide who they can trust on the file.

“The dominant parties remain fixated, for the most part, on market-based ‘solutions’ inherently unable to meet the task at hand at the speed and scale required,” he wrote. “We remain mired in incremental approaches that seek to incentivize businesses and households to do the right thing, and when necessary, we bring in regulations that are too late and too modest.”

The approach championed by Jaccard and the Liberals has been “spectacularly unsuccessful,” Klein said.

Asked about Klein’s criticism, Wilkinson noted that Klein’s brother-in-law Avi Lewis is an NDP candidate. He also pointed out the Liberal approach has found support from various other independent experts.

Stewart Elgie, a professor of law and economics and director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Ottawa, has applauded the recent Liberal record and sees it as a shift from past governments.

“For two decades, up to 2016, Canadians heard lofty promises but virtual inaction on climate change from successive federal governments,” he wrote in a piece published this week.

“In the past six years, the current Liberal government has done more to tackle climate change than previous governments did in over 20 years — and more than almost any other government in the world in this time.”

Generation Squeeze, the organization headed by policy professor Paul Kershaw at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health, also rated the Liberals at the top, though it noted, “No party is proposing to do enough to address climate change.”

The organization ranked the NDP and Greens just behind the Liberals, while the Conservatives trailed.

University of Victoria climate scientist and former BC Green Party leader Andrew Weaver on Tuesday tweeted that he’d met with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to talk about the party’s climate plan. “As I told him, ‘This is a plan that I’ve been dreaming of for most of my life,’” he wrote. “It is economy-wide, it’s all encompassing, and it’s costed and well thought through!”

Weaver had previously recorded a video message endorsing the Liberal climate plan and last week held a media availability with Wilkinson.

Wilkinson, of course, is thrilled with the endorsements and expects voters will take a signal from them. “It’s a little bit difficult I think for the average Canadian to differentiate what’s going on,” he said. “The different parties have different targets, they have different plans that cover different sectors, and I think it’s often difficult for folks to do that differentiation themselves.”

People may also wonder how to reconcile the Liberal plan with the government’s record, including Singh’s criticism that the Liberals keep subsidizing fossil fuel companies.

“We have committed, as you will be aware, alongside the G20 countries to phase out fossil fuel subsidies by 2025, and in fact in the platform we’ve committed to do that by 2023, two years in advance of most of our partners in the international community,” Wilkinson said.

He acknowledged that there’s some disagreement about what constitutes a “subsidy” between the different parties. “What we mean and most Canadians mean are mechanisms that actually incent the exploration and production of fossil fuels, and those we are firmly committed to phasing out,” he said.

That doesn’t include the wage subsidy put in place to support workers in all sectors during the pandemic, or money to clean up oil wells, or funding for clean tech aimed at reducing emissions, he said.

As for buying the Trans Mountain pipeline, Wilkinson said it is a “transportation mechanism” that’s safer and less expensive than rail and that it will provide access to markets other than the United States.

“I think what people are concerned about is ‘Well, is this going to mean significant expansion of oil and gas production in Canada?’ And what I would say is ‘no,’” he said. “One of the commitments we made in the platform is to cap oil and gas emissions and to require, every five years, binding targets on a pathway to zero.”

Wilkinson said climate change is the issue that motivated him to get into politics. The government has moved forward on it since he became minister, though more needs to be done, he said, adding that the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which found warming is widespread and accelerating, couldn’t have been clearer.

“Climate is an existential crisis,” he said. “We have limited time to take action to forestall the vast consequences associated with climate change. There remains time, but it’s very short and we need to take urgent action.”  [Tyee]

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