Goals made and goals unmet: Canada’s environmental contradiction

(Katarina Martins / The McGill Policy Association)

(Katarina Martins / The McGill Policy Association)

This past November, a study published in Nature Communications warned that Canada’s current environmental policy does not effectively help mitigate climate change. The study serves as a reality check on the Paris Agreement, signed in 2015 with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. All 196 signatories of the agreement pledged to do their part in keeping the rise in Earth’s temperature below two degrees Celsius by the year 2100, but according to the study, Canada’s current climate change policies will cause the earth’s temperature to rise by more than 5.1 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared committed to address climate change and the government frequently touts its climate plans as ambitious, so why is it that Canada’s environmental policies are inadequate?

In 2015, at the Paris climate accord, Canada pledged to reduce economy-wide GHG emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by the year 2030. In order to reach this goal, the federal government introduced the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change later in 2016. As Canada’s plan for combating climate change, the Pan-Canadian Framework’s main requirement is that each province or territory must introduce a carbon-pricing system to reduce Canada’s GHG emissions. This means that polluters would be charged a specific amount of money for each unit of GHG that they emit in an effort to incentivize them to reduce the total amount of GHG emissions.

However, the Pan-Canadian Framework has taken longer than expected to implement, due to push-back from provincial governments. After its introduction in 2016, the framework was not ratified until early 2018, and Saskatchewan refused to sign on, citing the high costs of a carbon tax for the province. Then, even after being ratified, the framework came across delays in its implementation. The time required for each province and territory to create a proposal for their unique systems ended up taking until September 2018, and still the Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, and New Brunswick proposals did not meet the federal government’s minimum requirements. These provinces have had a backstop system imposed on them by the federal government, which they plan to fight in court, while the rest of the provinces and territories have successfully implemented their own plans.

Along with the setbacks that have accompanied the Pan-Canadian Framework, experts argue that Canada’s original pledge at the Paris climate accords was never enough to meet the goals of the agreement; in order to do so, Canada would have needed to pledge cuts of 70 per cent of 2005 level carbon emissions, as opposed to the 30 per cent it actually agreed to cut. In addition, the Pan-Canadian Framework has been rated “highly insufficient” by independent scientific analysis Climate Action Tracker and Canada appears unlikely to hit even these pledged targets. For instance, many economists have argued that the price on carbon in specific systems, such as those of Atlantic Canada, is too low to strongly impact GHG emissions.

Furthermore, the federal government has frequently faced criticism for its seemingly contradictory actions in regard to the framework. Trudeau has been unable to end support for the fossil fuel industry and oil sands development due to their economic benefit, and he has approved multiple major oil pipelines. He is currently fighting for the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in Alberta, despite the fact that the estimated carbon-dioxide emissions associated with the pipeline would be equal to adding around 3 million cars to the road each year.

Projects such as the Trans Mountain will undermine the carbon-pricing systems set in place by the Pan-Canadian Framework, which demonstrates that Canada is nowhere near being on track to reach its 2030 goals. The inadequacy of Canada’s plan was made clear in March of 2018 when the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development audited Canada’s climate policies and concluded that in order to meet those 2030 goals, Canada “would require substantial effort and actions beyond those currently planned or in place.” Yet despite the Paris Agreement’s call for immediate action to combat climate change, Canada seems unwilling to take the necessary actions to reach its goals.