Environment commissioner tells Trudeau to get cracking on climate change

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at COP21 on Nov. 30, 2015

The Trudeau government is so sincere about its interest in climate change, it even renamed the Department of the Environment to put climate change in the title.

However, with climate change, as with much of the government’s agenda, the symbolic gestures come easier than action. Julie Gelfand, Canada’s environment and sustainable development commissioner, made that clear in her fall report earlier this week.

She put it plainly and she put it simply.

The government, Gelfand wrote, “did not make progress toward meeting Canada’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Gelfand notes that the current government is not alone in this failure. It has continued the miserable record of all previous governments, Liberal and Conservative alike, going back a quarter of a century, to the time when Brian Mulroney was prime minister.

All those governments, Gelfand points out, “repeatedly promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to the impacts of climate change, and support clean energy technology. However, since then, Canada has missed two separate emission reduction targets and is likely to miss the 2020 target as well; in fact, emissions have increased by over 15 per cent.”

Ignore 2020 and focus only on 2030

Gelfand’s key finding is that Trudeau’s environment and climate change minister, Catherine McKenna, has, in effect, decided to entirely ignore the government’s targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. Instead, the government has “shifted its focus to the 2030 target.”

The near-term 2020 target, set by the Copenhagen Agreement of 2010, would have Canada reduce its total emissions to 620 megatonnes. However, if Canada continues on its present course, the commissioner says we will be emitting 731 megatonnes by 2020. The environment and climate change minister’s response has been that the commissioner must take account of the government’s still-to-be-implemented Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, a federal-provincial joint effort that includes carbon pricing, regulatory measures and programs to foster clean technologies.

The framework is a work-in-progress right now, and its success will depend on the whole-hearted cooperation of the provinces. There is no guarantee anything forecast by the framework will come to fruition.

Even so, Gelfand gives McKenna the benefit of the doubt. She crunches the numbers and has to conclude that even if we assume both levels of government were to successfully implement all of the framework’s measures, emissions in 2020 will still be 62 megatonnes over the Copenhagen target.

Get serious and maybe you have a chance

Reading this year’s environment commissioner’s report, one gets the sense that Gelfand has concluded there is only so much she can expect governments to achieve by 2020, in less than three years. But Gelfand is still holding out hope that, if they get serious, federal and provincial governments have a chance of at least coming close to the much more ambitious 2030 targets.

The key message here is that they will have to get serious, and fast.

The Paris Agreement on climate change, which the Trudeau government signed with great fanfare, stipulates that Canada’s emissions should be a mere 532 megatonnes by 2030, less than 13 years from now. If we were to carry on as we are now, with no additional measures, Gefand’s report points out, 2030 emissions will come to a whopping 742 megatonnes.

However, the commissioner believes that over those 13 years the Pan Canadian Framework measures could have a positive impact, in contrast to her pessimism about short-term prospects.

If governments rigorously and successfully implement all of the measures of the framework, Gelfand forecasts that by 2030 emissions could be reduced to 567 megatonnes. That will still be higher the Paris target, but only by 35 megatonnes.

There is a big “if” in all this, and that is that the Trudeau government, which has shown good will in meeting often and consistently with its provincial partners — in marked contrast to its predecessor — will be able to push quickly to the next stage and take concrete actions that lead to measurable results.

It faces multiple challenges, one of which, Gelfand notes, arises out of the shift in approach from the Harper to the Trudeau government.

Harper, famously, was utterly averse to anything resembling carbon pricing, was cool, at best, to clean energy and claimed that a vague, sector-by-sector regulatory approach would do the trick.

Trudeau wants Canada to join the worldwide consensus, which holds that we should tax what we do not want, pollution, and reward what we do want, clean energy.

That new approach, the commissioner indicates, is all fine and good. However, Gelfand says that the Trudeau government might have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in failing to carry on with the regulatory initiatives the previous government had started, however inadequate those measures might have been.

Her report puts it this way:

“As of 2016, the Environment Department had replaced its approach of developing and implementing regulations for specific sectors of the economy. As a result, the department had not pursued the sector-specific oil and gas regulations, or the regulations for emission-intensive, trade-exposed industries.”

The result? In the view of the commissioner, “opportunities to achieve actual greenhouse gas emission reductions to meet the 2020 target were lost.”

If the government was to proceed with previously announce regulatory measures, by next year we would have new regulations limiting carbon dioxide emissions from natural-gas–fired electricity plants — rules which have been delayed since 2012. And by 2019, two years from now, we would have a clean fuel standard. Such a standard, in the words of the report, is “still in development”.

A failure to lead on climate change adaptation

The commissioner also tears a strip off the government for its plans to mitigate the impacts of climate change — impacts we see every day here and in places such as Puerto Rico.

Gelfand notes that climate change mitigation requires an all-of-government effort, which McKenna’s department would be expected to lead. She concludes that the environment and climate change department has simply not done its job when it comes to rallying the rest of government.

The department “did not provide adequate leadership to advance the federal government’s adaptation to climate change impacts.”

Gelfand then adds bluntly: “There was no action plan nor clear direction to ensure that the federal government would integrate climate change considerations into its own programs, policies, and operations.”

She looked at 19 federal departments and agencies, and only gave a passing grade to five: transport, health, fisheries and oceans, Indigenous affairs and natural resources.

As for the rest — well, many have not even lifted a finger to integrate climate change adaptation into their programs and policies. In the end, though, Gelfand points her finger at McKenna’s department, for its failure to provide tools and training to the rest of government.

On climate change, as on so many other difficult files, the Trudeau government is in an awkward situation of its own making. So far, having over promised it has markedly under delivered. 

Image: Environment and Climate Change Canada/Wikimedia Commons

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