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Justin Trudeau has a key role to play in getting the world on a better climate track

As UN chief calls for stepped-up climate ambition, the re-elected Liberal government can provide international leadership, but only if Canada is meeting its own obligations

Photo by Zarina Petrova/flickr

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau savoured his bittersweet election victory this week, world leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York City amid exhortations to dramatically accelerate the transition to a net-zero-carbon economy.

In the election campaign, the Liberals made some bold climate-change promises, including capping greenhouse gases (GHGs) from the oil and gas sector, forcing the industry to make big reductions in its methane emissions, and ensuring the country’s electricity sector becomes carbon-neutral by 2035. 

The specific planks – along with many other commitments – are meant to put meat on the bones of the Liberal government’s commitment to the UN in July that Canada will reduce its GHG emissions by 40 to 45% below 2005 levels by 2030, on the road to net-zero carbon by 2050.

Trudeau fell short in his bid for a majority government as many critics questioned the need for the summer election call during the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the Liberals can count on support from the New Democrats, Green Party and Bloc Québécois for ambitious climate action at home and on the world stage. 

For many voters, the election was less about climate change and more about a rising cost of living and affordable housing. To maintain support for costly climate policies, the Liberals will have to ensure that Canadians don’t feel overwhelmed by the wrenching transition ambitious climate action will entail.

Still, Canada – led by a reinstated Prime Minister Trudeau – has a key role to play in getting the world on a better track. 

As Canadians were casting their ballots Monday, UN Secretary General António Guterres and British Prime Minister Boris Johnston kicked off “climate week” in New York by hosting a closed-door session of world leaders to address shortfalls in GHG targets and climate finance.

A UN analysis of countries’ emission-reduction pledges – known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs – concluded that the world remains far off track to meet the Paris Agreement goal of holding the global increase in average temperature to 1.5°C, or even 2°C

After reviewing all the updated NDCs submitted this year, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the new targets would still leave the world on pace for a 2.7°C increase in average global temperature by 2100 – and that assumes the leading countries actually meet their commitments.

To maintain support for costly climate policies, the Liberals will have to ensure that Canadians don’t feel overwhelmed by the wrenching transition it will entail.

Gathered in New York for the opening of the General Assembly, Guterres and Johnson made it clear that all nations have to step up their ambition and action. The re-elected Liberal government can provide international leadership, but only if Canada is meeting its own obligations. 

To date, the federal and provincial climate policies have failed to stop the inexorable rise in GHG emissions, which are believed to have fallen in 2020 as a result of the pandemic only to rebound this year as the economy recovered. In 2015 – the year in which the Liberals were elected – Canada had emissions of 723 megatonnes; that climbed to 730 in 2019. In a report this month, Climate Action Tracker said Canada’s policies are “highly insufficient” to meet its commitments. 

Clearly, it takes time to develop policy, enact it and then see its impacts. The stubbornly high emission levels, however, illustrate the enormous challenge in achieving a transition that requires major changes to the country’s energy production and consumption.

With the election win, the Trudeau government can be expected to move quickly to legislate the planned increase in the carbon price from $50 per tonne next year to $170 in 2030, through yearly increments of $15. That higher levy will drive up the cost of gasoline, heating fuels and electricity fired by fossil fuel for Canadian consumers and businesses.

The Liberals have said they will continue to provide rebates to families to compensate them for the higher carbon price – an average family of four in Ontario will collect roughly $2,018 annually from the rebate by 2030. However, small businesses and the not-for-profit sector will see their costs rise significantly.

The minority Liberal government will also have to enact measures to reverse the dramatic increase in emissions seen from the oil and gas industry over the past 15 years. In its platform, the Liberal Party said emissions from the sector must not rise above current levels and promised to set targets for GHG reductions in the industry for 2025 and 2030 consistent with a path to net-zero by 2050.

That won’t be easy. Any policies aimed at achieving the pledge will almost certainly provoke a backlash from oil- and gas-producing provinces unless accompanied by massive aid for both the companies and their workforces (including retraining and financing the adoption of new technology). Industry critics, on the other hand, will loudly oppose any further subsidies for oil and gas producers, even if they help reduce emissions from production.

The Liberal pledge to make the electricity system emissions-free by 2035 will conflict with plans in some provinces to use natural gas as a replacement for coal or to back up intermittent renewable sources like solar and wind.

As a wealthy country with one of the world’s highest rates of GHGs per person, Canada has a special responsibility to address climate change, even though it accounts for only 1.6% of global emissions. Failure to meet the Liberals’ lofty promises would once again undermine Canada’s reputation, which has suffered from broken commitments in the past and the rapid expansion of the oil sands, known throughout the world as one of the most carbon-intensive sources of oil.

In a report this month, Climate Action Tracker said Canada’s policies are “highly insufficient” to meet its commitments.

In the past six years of Liberal government, Canada has staked out a leadership position on climate change internationally. Ottawa joined with the U.K. in establishing the Powering Past Coal Alliance, which encouraged countries around the world to phase out reliance on coal-fired power.

In a pre-recorded message to the UN meeting in New York, Chinese President Xi Jinping said his country would no longer finance the construction of coal-based power plants abroad, which represents a major victory in the powering-past-coal effort. However, Beijing remains committed to coal-fired electricity at home. 

In July, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson and his German counterpart were chosen to co-lead a process aimed at securing greater commitment from developed countries to deliver on their commitment of US$100 billion in climate financing for developing countries. 

Canada has pledged $5.3 billion (Canadian) toward that global commitment. The Biden administration announced it would seek approval from Congress to double its climate financing to US$11.4 billion annually.

Countries’ representatives are now preparing to gather in Glasgow in early November for the 2021 Conference of the Parties. COP26 president Alok Sharma – who also serves as the U.K.’s Minister of State at the Cabinet Office – says it’s critical that we achieve significant progress on climate financing to help developing countries prepare for the inevitable impacts of climate change and reduce emissions in order to limit the damage. Tellingly, these countries won’t be adequately represented at COP26 because of vaccine inequity.

In 2015, a newly elected Trudeau arrived at the Paris climate summit with a promise that Canada was “back” and ready to forge an ambitious role in battling climate change after 10 years of resistance from former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper. 

Since then, the Liberal government has made considerable progress, including being re-elected on its platform that proposed a large increase in the carbon prices. 

Now it must work with other parties – including the Conservatives where possible – to ensure the path to a net-zero carbon economy is secured domestically and work with global leaders to meet the goal of the Paris Agreement. The growing urgency of the climate crisis makes clear the inadequacy of half measures.

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