With buzz surrounding the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 21) in Paris and MP Catherine McKenna’s recent appointment as the minister of environment and climate change, there is no doubt the issue of climate change is prominent in political and socio-economic circles.
But despite targets set in recent years, Canada has failed to see any change from the federal government until now. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed the Liberals would help to ‘create clean jobs, grow [Canada’s] economy and protect the environment’ during his campaign.
With both local and international eyes on Canada’s new government, watching how the country rises up against its reputation as a ‘climate laggard’, there is certainly pressure to deliver on their environmental promises.
“One should look at climate change as an opportunity for technological transformation. Like the former Saudi oil minister, Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, once said, ‘The Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stones, ‘” says John Stone, adjunct professor in the department of geography and environmental science at Carleton University.
“Yamani was implying it was because we changed technology – we went from using instruments made from stone to ones made from metal. They made that technological transformation and left the stones in the ground. We’re essentially going to do the same thing.”
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Cleantech Group LLC, a multinational research firm, conducted a study in 2012 ranking 38 countries by their abilities to commercialize start-up green-tech firms. Canada ranked seventh – thanks to the country’s entrepreneurship and current corporate activity in the green-tech sector.
Companies such as Carbon Engineering in Calgary are further widening the federal government’s opportunities to invest in innovative green technologies and infrastructure. Private investors including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation fund the company. Its aim is to produce liquid fuels with a low life-cycle carbon-intensity, which is currently a growing market.
Carbon Engineering recently unveiled a pilot plant in October in Squamish, B.C. The carbon capture system will suck CO2 out of the atmosphere that, after going through a chemical process, can either be used to make fuel or stored underground for future use.
“We really shouldn’t be surprised that Canada’s green-tech sector is alive and well, but that’s the thing. We have it – the innovations and renewable resources. But we aren’t federally subsidizing them as much as we should,” says Audrey Dépault, national manager of the Climate Reality Project Canada.
In 2013, Canada spent $6.5 billion towards a renewable energy shift. But compared to China’s $55 billion and a worldwide spending of $207 billion, Canada is far behind.
As well, over 23 per cent of Canada’s emissions are from transportation alone. Coupled with continuous investments in the tar sands and oil industries, any green-tech investments are almost useless says Dépault.
“The province that has the most promise to reduce its carbon emissions is Alberta,” says Dépault. “If the government helps oil workers transition to cleaner jobs, and not leave them to fend for themselves once we leave fossil fuels in the ground, then we’d be helping both the environment and the economy.”
Other provinces have been leading by example, such as Ontario with its Green Energy Act (GEA), Quebec’s carbon cap and trade system and British Columbia’s carbon tax. The carbon tax was introduced in 2008 and as of 2012 the rates are based on $30 per tonne of CO2 equivalent emissions.
While some are skeptical about the possibility of it happening, experts believe that a federal carbon pricing policy could play a key role in reducing Canada’s emissions.
The David Suzuki Foundation and the Environics Institute found in 2014 that outside of British Columbia, 56 per cent of Canadians supported carbon pricing. Strongest support was in Ontario and Atlantic Canada.
“We found that provincially, carbon pricing is one of the best policies in mitigating climate change in Canada. The other two are generating more electricity from renewable resources and eliminating emissions from coal towers,” says Steve Kux, communications and research specialist at the David Suzuki Foundation.
“Our models showed that if we applied these three on a federal level, we would be much closer to meeting our 2020 targets. It would obviously be hard work to integrate what the provinces have to make one, or a couple, encompassing policies that fully unites Canada to reduce our emissions. But it’s not impossible.”
Canada currently has two main targets to mitigate climate change. In 2010, the government agreed to a ‘non-binding target’ to reduce emissions 17 per cent by 2020 based on 2005 levels. Prior to COP 21, Canada also submitted its intended nationally determined contribution (INDC), which pledged to cut emissions 30 per cent based on 2005 levels by 2030.
Both pledges were submitted while former prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was still in power.
“There are a million policy ideas out there, so it’s not really about that. It’s more about having a system that routinizes attention to detail they need to keep the momentum going and make decisions quickly,” says Matthew Paterson, political science professor at the University of Ottawa.
According to Paterson, the new government would need an efficient and elaborate political policy management system similar to those in Britain and Germany that monitors emissions in real time, as models are not sufficient enough to base effective policies on.
“Many provinces are way ahead compared to the previous government. It’s an odd problem – it’s not like they have to drag the provinces kicking and screaming to do something they don’t want to,” says Paterson.
“So what the government needs to do is, say for carbon pricing, set a national minimum price. But if a province already has a pricing system that better fit their industries like with B.C., then they don’t have to adapt it – so long as it works and significantly contributes to the country’s overall targets. It’s a balancing and adapting act.”
And despite the fact Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion will be chairing a cabinet committee on climate change, Paterson believes the Prime Minister himself should be the one to take charge.
“If the minister of foreign affairs is doing it, he doesn’t have the same weight to tell someone in finance for example to bring up their carbon tax, so it has to be Justin Trudeau. You need that top level political weight behind it to make sure momentum keeps going.”
The future is green
Although it seems to be quite the uphill climb for the new government in tackling climate change, people are not losing hope for a greener Canada.
On Nov. 29, the eve of COP 21, thousands of people across Ontario and Quebec came together in Ottawa for the ‘100% Possible March for Climate Solutions and Justice’. Following the success of similar gatherings in Quebec City and Toronto, thousands marched from Ottawa City Hall to Parliament Hill in support for the country’s growing climate movement and further encourage federal action.
“We’re going to leave, hopefully, a significant amount of fossil fuel in the ground with this transformation,” says Stone. “There is a great amount of commitment from all levels right now. So there’s definitely reason to be hopeful.”
Header photo © Arianna Danganan
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