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For Canada’s Climate Commitments

Bold Words Lead to Underwhelming Actions

By: Eric Murphy

For many Canadians who are concerned about the environment, 2015 felt like a turning point. Stephen Harper, the prime minister accused of “muzzling” climate scientists, and who once wrote that the United Nations’ Kyoto Protocol was a “job-killing, economy-destroying . . . socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations,” had just left office.[1] [2] In his place rose Justin Trudeau, a new prime minister who presented a much more climate-friendly platform. Within a few weeks, Trudeau was standing in front of the UN for COP21, the climate convention responsible for the creation of the Paris Agreement. On that global stage, Trudeau said that “Canada is back, my good friends. We are here to help.”[3]

Where Trudeau thinks Canada had returned from is clear – the perceived climate inactions of his predecessor. But what exactly was coming back? 

In the early 1990s, Canada had developed a reputation as a leader within the environmental movement.[4] This was thanks to a number of important innovations in environmental measurement and policy. Canada was a leader in the development of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, a global agreement signed in 1987 to reduce ozone damage. In 1992, Canadian scientists developed the UV index, which was adopted for international use by the World Health Organization and the UN Environment Programme in 1994.[5]

1992 was also a milestone year for the UN’s response to climate change. Responding to the growing consensus from the scientific community that climate change was a real and looming threat, the UN established the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Canada was the first G7 nation to ratify the treaty, further establishing its reputation as an environmental innovator and leader.[6] This reputation was cemented over the next two decades, as Liberal and Conservative governments signed every major UN climate bill that emerged – most notably the Kyoto Protocol, ratified in 2002, and the Copenhagen Accord in 2009. 

So, when Trudeau said that Canada was “back” when he signed the Paris Agreement in 2015, this is the Canada he was invoking. A country with a deep reverence for nature, responsible for innovative environmental research, and ready to stand first in line to commit to new climate targets. A reputation that, by 2015, was far from deserved and has disappointingly not been lived up to in the years since Prime Minister Trudeau’s election and Paris Agreement speech. 

Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, gives Canada’s National Statement at COP21, Paris, 2015. Image courtesy of the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada.

Following Canada’s very real and impactful work on the Montreal Protocol and the UV index in the late 1980s and early 1990s, successive governments’ outwardly public support for environmental progress has masked decades of climate inaction. The message of environmental activism that our governments share on the world stage is far different than the policies Canadians see at home. 

Just in November 2023, an audit from the commissioner of the environment’s office found that Canada’s Liberal government is formally set to miss 2030 emissions targets.[7] Jerry DeMarco, commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, put it bluntly: “Canada is the only G7 country that has not achieved any emissions reductions since 1990.”

But this is hardly a new phenomenon. When Trudeau said that “Canada is back,” you might assume he was referring to the country’s direction under his most recent Liberal Party predecessors. However, despite Jean Chrétien ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, greenhouse gases rose faster under both Paul Martin and Jean Chrétien than they did during the Stephen Harper years.[8] Emissions actually decreased slightly under Harper, but this was a result of the 2008 financial crisis and climate actions undertaken by some provincial governments, rather than federal action.[9]

Trudeau has closely followed the blueprint set out by these three previous leaders. Similar to Chrétien, Trudeau leaped at the chance to sign the UN’s latest climate treaty (in this case, the Paris Agreement) but then did little to reach the treaty’s critical climate targets. Similar to Harper, Trudeau’s greatest climate successes can be attributed to outside factors (in his case, demand for fossil fuels diminishing during the COVID-19 pandemic). 

Signing the Paris Agreement was an undoubtedly powerful statement, but it’s a statement that appears to have been crafted for the benefit of the international community that makes up the UN. Domestically, the Trudeau government’s actions have been at odds with the prime minister’s 2015 declarations. It’s become apparent that Canada’s federal government essentially has two faces: the environmentalist one it shows on the global stage and the one it saves for oil executives and lobbyists, many of whom hold prominent positions on the boards of major Canadian financial institutions, particularly banks and pension funds.[10]

These two faces were clearly on display in 2018, when the federal government declared a national climate emergency and then bought the Trans Mountain pipeline the very next day.[11],[12] Funding projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline goes directly against the targets set out in the Paris Agreement, and this $4.5-billion purchase was far from the federal government’s only investment in fossil fuels. By 2020, Trudeau’s government was spending at least $13.8 billion per year in public financing for oil and gas projects, making Canada the world’s largest financier of fossil fuel projects per capita, and the second-largest funder overall, after only China.[13] In 2022 alone, it’s estimated that the federal government provided more than $20 billion in subsidies to the oil and gas sector, including more than $10 billion earmarked for the Trans Mountain pipeline.[14]

Image courtesy of Environmental Defence.

Actions like these largely muted the investments in green energy and other pollution-reducing actions Canada has taken since signing the Paris Agreement, such as the implementation of carbon pricing nationally. From 2005 to 2021, Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 8.4%, which falls well short of what Canada has committed to. Additionally, the timing of that modest decrease aligns with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which slowed the energy and transport sectors and reduced emissions globally.[15]

This is not to say that the Paris Agreement itself has been a failure, or to undercut the UN’s continued work to get countries aligned on climate change. Many countries have been making significant progress in reducing emissions. Sweden is ahead of its targets for renewable energy, with 60% of the country’s power coming from renewables as of 2022.[16] Norway draws 98% of its electricity from renewables and is a global leader for electric vehicle ownership, with 8.1% of its population owning an EV in 2020.[17]

The Paris Agreement also repeatedly affirms the rights of Indigenous Peoples. Working within this framework, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean pledged new protections for environmental defenders, including Indigenous Peoples campaigning against logging, mining, and oil exploration in protected areas.[18] Meanwhile, Canada has increased the criminalization of Indigenous land defenders, in particular the Wet’suwet’en land defenders protesting the Coastal GasLink pipeline in British Columbia. These actions are a far cry from Trudeau’s declaration at COP21 when he said, “Very importantly, we will work with our provinces, territories, cities and Indigenous leaders who are taking a leadership role on climate change. Indigenous Peoples have known for thousands of years how to care for our planet. The rest of us have a lot to learn.”[19]

In 2023, the federal government did begin to make some encouraging new progress toward acting on its Paris Agreement targets. In a matter of weeks in early December, the government unveiled a number of new commitments and initiatives, including proposed regulations that would all but ban methane burning from oil and gas production by 2030, a proposed regulatory framework for capping oil and gas sector emissions, the new Sustainable Jobs Act that was sent to the House of Commons for debate, and a $16-million pledge towards a new global climate damage fund.[20][21][22][23] Earlier in the year, the government also unveiled plans to phase out inefficient oil and gas subsidies.[24]

If followed through, these commitments would represent important steps along the path to Canada achieving its Paris Agreement targets, but there is still a significant gulf between the future the agreement outlined and where Canada stands today. As Trudeau said in his Paris Agreement speech, “Those who can act, must.” For more than three decades, Canada has declared during major UN forums that not only can it act, but it will act. Despite that, the meaningful actions we have taken are outweighed by continued investment in the oil sands, and our greenhouse gas emissions have not decreased. There is still time to reverse course, but not as much time as there was when the UN called upon us to act in 2015, or 2009, or 2002, or 1992.  

Rally participants in Vancouver oppose proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, 2015. Image courtesy of CBC News.

[1] Wendy Palen, “When Canadian Scientists Were Muzzled by Their Government,” in The New York Times (2017).

[2] CBC News, “Harper’s Letter Dismisses Kyoto as ‘Socialist Scheme,’” on cbc.ca (2007).

[3] Justin Trudeau, “Canada’s National Statement at COP21,” on canada.ca (2015).

[4] Vanessa Hrvatin, “A Brief History of Canada’s Climate Change Agreements,” in Canadian Geographic (2016).

[5] Government of Canada, “About the UV Index,” on canada.ca (modified 2018). 

[6] Vanessa Hrvatin, “A Brief History of Canada’s Climate Change Agreements,” in Canadian Geographic (2016).

[7] Peter Zimonjic, “Liberal Government Set to Miss 2030 Emissions Targets, Says Environment Commissioner Audit,” on cbc.ca (2023).

[8] Government of Canada, “Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” on canada.ca (modified 2023).

[9] Leslie Young, “Reality Check: Have Greenhouse Gas Emissions Decreased as the Economy Grows?” on globalnews.ca (2015).

[10] John Woodside, “Banks, Big Oil and Boards: Untangling the Relationship between Fossil Fuels and Finance,” in The National Observer (2022).

[11] The Narwhal, “Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Climate Change,” on thenarwhal.ca.

[12] The Narwhal, “Trans Mountain Pipeline,” on thenarwhal.ca.

[13] Mitchell Beer, “Canada Leads G20 in Per Capita Public Financing to Oil and Gas,” in The Energy Mix (2020).

[14] Environmental Defence, “The Running List of Federal Fossil Fuel Subsidies in Canada in 2022,” on environmentaldefence.ca (2022).

[15] P. Bhanumati, Mark de Haan, & James William Tebrake, “Greenhouse Emissions Rise to Record, Erasing Drop During Pandemic,” in IMFBlog (2022).

[16] Swedish Institute, “Swedes Use a Lot of Energy, Yet Emissions Are Low. The Key? Renewable Energy,” on sweden.ca.

[17] Rob Binns, “Countries That Will Survive Climate Change: Is Your Country on the List?” in The Independent(2023).

[18] “Draft Decision I/6, Human Rights Defenders in Environmental Matters,” in the First meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (2022).

[19] Justin Trudeau, “Canada’s National Statement at COP21,” on canada.ca (2015).

[20] Mia Rabson, “Canada proposes new methane emissions rules for oil-and-gas sector,” on CTVNews (2023).

[21] Peter Zimonjic, “Federal Government Unveils What It Calls a ‘Strict’ Oil and Gas Cap to Curb Emissions,” on cbc.ca (2023).

[22] Natasha Bulowski, “Sustainable Jobs Act Heads Back to the House after Chaos in Committee,” in The National Observer (2023).

[23] Kyle Bakx, “Canada Commits $16M to New Global Climate Damage Fund,” on cbc.ca (2023).

[24] Mitchell Beer, “Canada Restricts Oil and Gas Subsidies, Leaves Open Door for Indigenous Projects, CCS,” in The Energy Mix (2023).