Canada's new government faces an opportunity and a test on environment and climate


Anthony Swift and Danielle Droitsch

The Canadian election results are in. The Liberal Party, led by Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau, has been swept into power by a wave of national discontent over the right-wing policies of the Conservative government under Stephen Harper. After winning a commanding majority of Canada's parliamentary seats, the Liberal Party will be able to form a majority government with a strong mandate. As this election was largely a repudiation of former Prime Minister Harper's policies by the Canadian electorate, attention will turn to questions about how the Liberal party will chart a different course. The Liberals will have many opportunities to do so, from reversing Canada's poor climate record, undoing the damage Harper did to the country's basic environmental safeguards and review processes, and ending the federal government's efforts to silence scientists. One of the first major tests will be in early December in the climate negotiations in Paris, where Canada will face international attention about how its new government will reverse a decade of inaction from Stephen Harper's Conservative party. And the question from many in the international community will be a simple one: Will the new Liberal government confront Canada's biggest climate challenge and implement policies that will stop increasing emission from the tar sands and bring about national emissions reductions?

For the past nine years, the Canadian government under Stephen Harper's Conservatives has been a global laggard on climate policy. Over this time period, the Canadian government has presided over a massive increase in carbon pollution -- primarily from the tar sands sector -- and actively fought international efforts to advance stronger climate and clean energy policies. The country will miss its Copenhagen obligations by a wide margin, primarily due to increased tar sands expansion. The Harper government's failure to regulate oil and gas emissions and its recent decision to decouple Canadian emissions from U.S. targets have been emblematic of its detachment from the coalition of industrialized nations moving decisively to confront the threat of global climate change. For these reasons, Canada's climate plan under the Harper government has earned failing grades.

So while many in the environmental community across Canada and internationally might be relieved that there is no longer a federal government that actively fights climate policy, there are major questions about the future stance of this new Canadian government.

While Prime Minister-elect Trudeau pledged to take a more aggressive position on climate change, he has failed to establish any clear targets. In contrast to other Canadian political parties, the Liberals have refused to develop national greenhouse gas reduction targets, only making general reference to a promise to limit global warming to 2° C. In the last ten days of the campaign, Trudeau stated Canada has no immediate need for fixed national targets to address climate change. "What we need is not ambitious political targets," he told a national radio audience. "What we need is an ambitious plan to reduce our emissions in the country." Instead, it has made only a very general promise to adopt a pan-Canadian framework within 90 days of the Paris negotiations.

Unfortunately, the lack of a defined federal plan and continued reliance on a patchwork of provincial targets would deprive Canada of the national policy impetus and wider, pan-Canadian carbon market that would help drive deeper, faster emission reductions. The post-election consultation period also opens up the possibility that Canada will arrive at the crucial 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris with no firmly-committed carbon reduction target--an outcome even worse than the unambitious INDC put forward by the previous government.

In addition, the Liberal party is a proponent of the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline proposal, which would bring 830,000 barrels of carbon intensive tar sands through the United States every day. Instead of acknowledging that it is Keystone XL's harmful environmental impacts that have doomed the project, Trudeau believes that Harper simply poisoned the Canada-U.S. relationship and weakened the environmental assessments that gave the tar sands industry the social license to operate. In a further twist, while Trudeau supports Keystone XL, he does not support the similarly controversial Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline proposal and has promised a crude oil tanker moratorium off the north coast of British Columbia.

In regard to the other pipeline dreams of the tar sands industry, Trudeau has been less decisive. He has reserved judgment on the proposed Energy East tar sands pipeline, a project that would ship more than 1 million barrels of the high carbon crude across five Canadian Provinces and onto hundreds of oil tankers sailing through environmentally sensitive waters along the U.S. East Coast. On the opposite coast, Trudeau has failed to take a stand on Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline expansion plan--a project that has faced controversy and extraordinary community opposition during the entirety of its regulatory review process.

Regardless of his belief in the merit of any of these pipelines, Trudeau has promised to review the laws, policies, and practices of Canada's deeply troubled energy regulator, the National Energy Board (NEB). As he begins this process, it will be critical to ensure that the rights of Canada's First Nations are addressed, the upstream and downstream carbon emissions are examined, the environmental impacts of extraction and transport are analyzed, and citizen engagement is given top priority. To accomplish these changes to any meaningful extent will require pausing review processes currently before the NEB to ensure that these important and needed reforms can take place.

There is no question that the new Liberal government has its work cut out for it after nine years under Stephen Harper. Nonetheless, many of its earliest tests will come in the environmental realm. With Canada's role in climate change and climate action front and center, and carbon-intensive tar sands development a key driver of many of Canada's environmental issues, the international community will be focusing its attention on what Canada's new government can do. At a minimum, pressure is already mounting for Canada to set truly ambitious emission reduction targets and outline currently-missing policies that will be necessary to ensure these reductions are actually made. In doing so, there is huge potential for Canada to embrace a truly 21st-Century, low-carbon economy that will allow the country to move away from its current reliance on the tar sands industry and free itself from the pernicious boom and bust economic cycles that the Harper government and its industry supporters have pressed on the Canadian people for the last decade.