By Ian Austen, The New York Times, November 26, 2015
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with high school students in Ottawa after an information session on climate change. Photo: Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press.
With the defeat of the Conservatives in the October general election, out went nearly a decade of Canada making itself something of a global outcast on the issue. The record of the former prime minister, Stephen Harper, on climate change was marked by retreat, foot-dragging, and hand-wringing over the economic consequences of moving too quickly.
The new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, and his Liberals are now trying to make up for lost time. And along with the left-leaning New Democrats, who wrested power from the Conservatives in the oil-rich province of Alberta last spring, they have now moved climate-change policy to the top of the country’s political agenda.
The swift about-face put Ed Whittingham, one of the country’s most prominent environmentalists, briefly at a loss for words in a recent interview. “What adjective can I use?” Mr. Whittingham, the executive director of the Pembina Institute, asked after a moment. “Marked? Dramatic? Significant? They all apply.”
Mr. Harper skipped last year’s United Nations climate summit meeting in New York. But Mr. Trudeau will attend this year’s meeting in Paris next week, and not only that: He has invited his political opponents and all 10 of the country’s provincial premiers to join the delegation. He gathered the premiers in Ottawa on Monday for a meeting largely devoted to developing a national strategy.
“We’ll demonstrate that we are serious about climate change,” Mr. Trudeau said after a four-hour dinner with the premiers. “This means making decisions based on science; it means reducing carbon emissions, including through carbon pricing towards a climate-resilient economy.” Several of the provincial leaders voiced similar sentiments.
Mr. Harper would never have said that. Though he acknowledged a need for some action during his decade in power, he withdrew Canada from the Kyoto accord on climate change and warned about the economic consequences of moving faster than the United States.
Canada has made a bit of progress on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, but most of it has come from the provinces: Ontario has stopped burning coal to produce electricity, for instance, and Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta have introduced carbon taxes of varying effectiveness. At the federal level, though, Mr. Harper lowered emission-reduction targets that had been set by an earlier Liberal government, calling them unrealistic, and then failed to meet even the lowered targets.
Overall emissions have been rising in Canada in recent years, after dipping during the 2008 recession. The latest available figures show the country emitting 726 million metric tons of carbon in 2013 — and given that, Mr. Harper’s critics argued that his government’s policies could not possibly get them down to the goal of 611 million by 2020.
So far, Mr. Trudeau has been careful not to attach specifics numbers to his promises, saying only that the goals will be more ambitious and that they must be developed in cooperation with the provinces. The federal government can regulate emissions from factories and vehicles, but the provinces have control over natural resources and many areas of business regulation, making their participation vital to any national plan’s success.
With Alberta now in the hands of the New Democrats, it should be much easier for Mr. Trudeau to reach an agreement. Alberta did have a carbon tax before the election, but it was widely viewed as inadequate, and the former governing party, the Progressive Conservatives, who ran the province for four decades, seemed unwilling to press the oil and gas industry on the issue; energy royalties are a major source of provincial revenue.
Last Sunday, the new provincial premier, Rachel Notley, unveiled a sweeping new climate change plan for Alberta, including a more robust carbon tax that will eventually reach $30 a metric ton and a cap on greenhouse gas emissions from the province’s oil sands, which are seen by environmental activists as a particularly dirty source of petroleum. Somewhat surprisingly, Ms. Notley was joined at her presentation not only by environmentalists but also by executives from four of the largest oil sands companies.
“The Alberta announcement takes away the biggest barrier Canada has had on climate action,” said Dale Marshall, national program manager at Environmental Defence, an environmental group based in Toronto.
Several premiers, including Ms. Notley, have accepted Mr. Trudeau’s invitation to Paris. This week Kathleen Wynne, the Liberal premier of Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, sketched out her plans to join Quebec’s cap-and-trade system for pricing carbon.
The new government’s efforts on climate change are something of a vindication for Stéphane Dion, Mr. Trudeau’s foreign affairs minister and a key adviser on climate issues. When Mr. Dion led the Liberals in the 2008 election, he based his unsuccessful campaign against Mr. Harper around an environmental platform that included carbon taxes.
Without time to develop a detailed plan, Mr. Trudeau and his colleagues will not be able to present much more than their good intentions in Paris. Mr. Trudeau has given himself and the provincial premiers 90 days after the conference to work out specifics.
Mr. Marshall expects Mr. Trudeau to offer the provinces incentives to set and meet emission reduction targets — for example, extra money for transit projects.
Mr. Trudeau has told the provinces they will be free to reach their emissions targets by whatever means they prefer. That will preserve the current situation, with some provinces using carbon taxes and others a cap-and-trade system to hold emissions down.
Mr. Marshall said he hoped that the province-by-province approach will eventually evolve toward a single national system.
Working out the specifics will not be easy. “In some ways, the task is quite daunting,” Mr. Marshall said.
And it is unlikely that the final system will please everyone. Clayton Thomas-Muller, a campaigner for 350.org Canada, an affiliate of the American advocacy group, said that his organization wanted the new policy to end all expansion of the oil sands. Mr. Trudeau is unlikely to propose any such measure, but slumping oil prices and Ms. Notley’s cap on emissions in Alberta may spare him the trouble by making expansion of the oil sands uneconomical.
Mr. Thomas-Muller said that while his group was not entirely in sync with Mr. Trudeau on the issue, the new prime minister had certainly changed the conversation in Canada on climate change.