Irving pulp and paper in Saint John, New Brunswick. Credit: etaplus / Unsplash

To borrow a phrase from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Thursday, November 25, 2021, will go down as a “day of infamy” for the environment in Canada.

Two days after the Trudeau government presented a throne speech that was disappointingly weak on plans to combat climate change, the federal environment commissioner blasted Canada’s emissions reduction record.

“Canada was once a leader in the fight against climate change,” recently-appointed commissioner Jerry DeMarco said. “However, after a series of missed opportunities, it has become the worst performer of all Group of Seven nations since the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change was adopted in 2015.”

The environment commissioner is a non-partisan officer of the federal auditor general’s department, responsible for assuring Canadians get value for money from federal environmental policies and programs, and evaluating how effective those policies and programs are.

In his most recent report, the commissioner reached a sobering and worrisome conclusion: “Repeated commitments, strategies, and action plans to reduce emissions in Canada have not yielded results.”

The report shows how we have missed our reduction targets by a wide margin, putting our ability to reach our ambitious Glasgow commitment for 2030 in doubt.

In 2019, Canada’s emissions were equivalent to 730 megatonnes of carbon dioxide. Its target emissions for 2020 was 607 megatonnes. After Glasgow, Canada committed to a target of 406 to 443 megatonnes by the year 2030.

However, the report reads: “Despite progress in some areas, such as public electricity and heat generation, Canadian emissions have actually increased by more than 20 per cent since 1990.”

On that same day, Ontario auditor general (AG) Bonnie Lysyk reported that the Doug Ford government would not even achieve a fifth of the emission reductions it has promised to achieve by 2030 if it stays the course.

In 2018, when the Doug Ford government bowed out of the federal carbon tax, it promised a “made-in-Ontario” emissions-reduction plan. Revealingly, Ford’s folks chose to accentuate the negative by calling their new plan the Cap-and-Trade Cancellation Act.

The Act promised to reduce Ontario’s emissions by 17.6 megatonnes. But the auditor general’s office tells us the province is on track to achieve only a 3.4 megatonne reduction – a gargantuan miss.

The Ontario AG office bases its analysis on information provided by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment.

In 2019, the AG recommended a series of actions the provincial government would have to take to achieve its emission-reductions goal – recommendations the Ford government accepted.

But, to date, the new report finds, Ford’s folks have only “fully implemented 27 per cent” of the recommendations. They are “working on” a further 18 per cent. As for the rest, the AG reports that “little progress has been made on 50 per cent of the recommended actions.”

The Ontario environment ministry does not even have an “expected timeframe for presenting an updated climate change plan to cabinet for approval.”

Two-faced federal policies pull in opposite directions

Ontario’s Doug Ford has never claimed to be favourable to any sort of environmental protection or stewardship. He has always portrayed himself as single-mindedly pro-business and pro-profit, and frequently characterizes even the most modest environmental measures as bad for both.

His federal colleague Justin Trudeau wants to paint a vastly different picture of himself. In fairness, his government has taken some steps to combat climate-changing emissions, notably a carbon tax.

Nonetheless, the federal environment commissioner concludes that the Trudeau government’s actions have been inconsistent and ineffective. Worse, at times those actions tended to pull in opposite directions.

Commissioner DeMarco points to the pipeline the Trudeau government bought – the Trans Mountain – as an example of what he calls “incoherence.”

“To buy and manage a pipeline is against the government’s goal to lower emissions,” he told reporters at a news conference following release of his latest report.

Another example of this sort of incoherence is a Trudeau government program called the emissions reduction fund.

A year ago, the government set up the $750 million fund to – supposedly – help oil and gas companies reduce their methane and other greenhouse gas emissions. In the government’s words, the fund “provides primarily repayable funding to eligible oil and gas firms to support their investments to reduce GHG emissions by adopting greener technologies and help maintain jobs in a time of economic hardship and uncertainty.”

The “help maintain jobs” part is key, because this program was as much a COVID-related rescue plan for the industry as an environmental one.

The former environment minister and current natural resources minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, candidly explained the Januslike faces of the fund this way:

“The first was, at a time where you are at record low energy prices, to support workers and communities to ensure that those jobs continue through the COVID-19 crisis. And secondly, at a time where many of these companies were facing economic crises to ensure that they continue to act on reducing methane emissions.”

Wilkinson claims that “on both of those scores it’s succeeded.” The environment commissioner vigorously disagrees:

“Overall, Natural Resources Canada did not design the Fund to ensure credible and sustainable reductions of greenhouse gas emissions in the oil and gas sector or value for the money spent.”

The commissioner’s report explains that the “emission reductions attributed to the program should be in addition to what would have happened without it,” but that was not what happened.

More than half of the program’s reductions “had already been accounted for under [existing] federal methane regulations.” Jerry DeMarco says the government was attempting some dubious statistical legerdemain in the way it attributed reductions to the money it generously gave oil and gas companies.

“The department should not have attributed reductions [achieved through previously-enacted regulations] to the program, and misstated what the program could achieve.”

The commissioner goes further and characterizes the fund’s interest-free loans and other payments to oil and gas companies as “fossil fuel subsidies” – the opposite of measures to combat global warming.

In essence DeMarco shows us, again, how the government has been confused and incoherent in its approach to climate change.

“When you have different departments pushing in different directions, you get problems like the emissions level going up even though you have individual programs trying to make them go down.”

Wilkinson made a weak effort to quibble with the commissioner’s findings but, in the end, had to admit that “we need to review and come up with different options about how we’re going to use this money going forward.”

The passive-aggressive Doug Ford government

The federal Liberals at least recognize, however reluctantly, that they have more work to do. All their Ontario Conservative counterparts do is deny and deflect.

Doug Ford’s environment minister David Piccini did not even attempt to address any of the substantive issues Lysyk put on the table. His response was all bluster with no content.

“I can look Ontarians in the eye and say Ontario is a leader in greenhouse gas emissions reduction in this federation,” Piccini said. “We are the only province responsible for Canada’s progress. That is Ontario, and that is thanks to action Premier Ford has taken.” 

Ford’s actions have included scrapping virtually every one of the previous government’s clean energy and emissions-reduction programs, and taking the federal government to court over the carbon tax.

Among the Ontario premier’s other environmental achievements has been to use what are called Ministerial Zoning Orders (MZOs) to permit development on wetlands and other sensitive areas, despite the best efforts of apolitical conservative authorities to protect them.  

During the last provincial election campaign, Doug Ford admitted he knew little about the environment and was focused only on, his words, “jobs.”

There’s no need for the two to be mutually exclusive.

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...