The federal Liberal government’s bold climate announcements since taking office in 2015 have not been matched by action, Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Julie Gelfand, told Parliament in a toughly worded report tabled yesterday. Among the critical gaps: action on fossil fuel subsidies, and regulations to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
While noting the achievement of a Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change 10 months ago, Gelfand says the government has neither enacted effective measures to slow climate change, nor taken steps to prepare Canadians for its effects.
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“Previous plans have failed to produce concrete results,” the Commissioner warns. “It’s time for change. The federal government needs to start doing the hard work to turn this latest broad framework into tangible and measurable actions.”
In a perspective letter accompanying her detailed sectoral reports, the Commissioner makes it clear that neither Prime Minister Justin Trudeau nor the Liberals invented Canada’s gap between aspiration and action on climate. It extends back over at least four previous governments, starting with the Progressive Conservative cabinet of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
“Since 1992,” Gelfand writes in her opening salvo, “the government has repeatedly promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, adapt to the impacts of climate change, and support clean energy technology. However, since then, Canada has missed two separate emission reduction targets and is likely to miss the 2020 target as well.”
Disturbingly, the pattern of prevarication continues. The Liberal government, the Commissioner writes, “is nowhere near being ready to adapt to the impacts of climate change,” particularly where it is occurring especially quickly in Canada’s North.
Meanwhile, “instead of developing a detailed action plan to reach the 2020 target for reducing emissions,” the government has spent its first 22 months in office—nearly half of its mandate—focused on the 2030 targets it inherited from the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper. While adopting its predecessors’ targets, however, the Liberals abandoned sectoral emission regulations that the Conservatives had been working on (admittedly slowly) to achieve them, “thereby losing opportunities to achieve real reductions.”
Earlier, while under the control of ex-journalist-turned-Conservative-MP Peter Kent in 2011, “Environment and Climate Change Canada developed a Federal Adaptation Policy Framework, but did not follow up with an action plan to implement it,” Gelfand reports. “It also failed to provide departments and other government organizations with adequate guidance and tools to identify their climate change risks.”
Perhaps partly in consequence, CBC News writes in its coverage, “only five of 19 departments and agencies examined by Gelfand’s audit team had fully assessed risks and taken steps to address climate change. The other 14 had taken ‘little or no action’ to address the risks.” Stunningly, the 14 laggards include Environment and Climate Change Canada, as well as the departments of Public Safety and National Defence.
Gelfand takes particular aim at successive governments’ “disconcerting” unwillingness or inability to tackle perverse subsidies for fossil fuels that Canada has repeatedly committed to eliminate since 2009. Indeed, it turns out that “the two departments tasked with delivering on this commitment,” the Finance Canada and Environment and Climate Change Canada, have not yet even listed the subsidies targeted for phasing out.
“It is unclear how Canada will meet this international commitment by 2025,” Gelfand observes, “without a clear roadmap to get there.”
The Commissioner urges Parliament to “hold the government to account” for its climate commitments. MPs and Senators, she asserts, “are in a position to help the government take that critical next step from a seemingly endless planning mode into an action mode.”
Adds Gelfand, “that shift needs to happen, and it needs to happen now, because Canada is already experiencing the impacts of a changing climate.”
Environment and Climate Minister Catherine McKenna deflected much of the criticism to the previous government. The Harper cabinet, she said, had set targets with no plan to meet them. Now, “just as the Commissioner recommends, we’re working every day to turn our commitments into actions.” She added that “the results of the significant actions that we have taken since 2015” would be “reflected in future audits.”
Unwilling to give her that time, NDP environment critic Linda Duncan said the Commissioner’s report confirmed that the Liberal government is “all talk and no action” on climate change.
“The Liberals adopted Stephen Harper’s weak targets, and now it’s clear that they will fail to meet the 2020 targets, yet alone the 2030 targets,” Duncan said in a statement.
Greenpeace Canada senior energy strategist Keith Stewart urged the government to tackle the hard work of “turning its admirable words on climate change into meaningful action.”
“That work will bring huge benefits in the form of new jobs and fewer climate-fuelled disasters,” Stewart predicted. “But it requires leaders willing to stand up to the powerful oil and auto lobbies and actually implement bold policies.”
From Quebec’s Équiterre, Senior Director Steven Guilbeault accepted some of McKenna’s defence, conceding that “the Commissioner’s findings [are] partly the result of the complete inaction of the previous federal government.”
Nonetheless, “our ability to meet Canada’s 2030 GHG emission reduction target, as well as our international commitment in the Paris Agreement, depend on the rapid, immediate implementation of the measures announced last December in the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. The time for political manoeuvering and negotiations is over. It is time for action.”