(This story has been updated.) Climate change moved to the centre of Canada’s million-job recovery strategy, the Trudeau government pledged immediate action on more ambitious carbon reduction targets, neither the fossil nor the nuclear industry rated a single explicit mention, and a government-appointed senator was more deeply critical than many of the country’s leading campaign organizations as Governor General Julie Payette read a much-anticipated Speech from the Throne Wednesday afternoon.
Leading advocacy groups across the Canadian climate community stressed that actual implementation of the climate and green recovery commitments in the Throne Speech will be the ultimate test of the government’s seriousness—but the commitments themselves were an important step forward.
“Today the Government of Canada delivered the most progressive speech from the throne heard in a generation,” said Climate Action Network-Canada (CAN-Rac) Executive Director Catherine Abreu. “The promises made acknowledged the inequalities and vulnerabilities that have been laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic,” and “we welcome the news that the government will immediately release its plans for exceeding Canada’s 2030 climate goal, as well as move forward legislation to reach zero emissions by 2050.”
Abreu added: “Of course, we’ve heard similar promises before from this government. It is the policy and investment decisions made in the coming months that will determine whether the spirit articulated in this historic speech is turned into meaningful action.”
Student campaigners, by contrast, planned to take to the streets Friday and Saturday with more than a dozen local rallies across the country, “in response to Prime Minister Trudeau’s abysmally inadequate Throne Speech, and to set the agenda moving forward,” Climate Strike Canada announced in a release. “Five years ago, this same prime minister promised to phase out fossil fuel subsidies,” a spokesperson said. “This week, he’s decided to prolong them. We are tired of Trudeau’s broken promises.”
“We organized the biggest protest in the history of the country” last year, added Climate Strike campaigner and McGill University student Emma Lim. “How is it that no government pays attention when it comes to policy? It’s really discouraging and shows us we need to go further.”
“We’re suddenly realizing that systems can change, things can be different, and we just need to press forward and make those changes,” said McGill management professor Dror Etzion. “(It’s) an opportunity for re-imagination, rethinking the way we do things, and a lot of them are aligned with climate and sustainability issues.”
A Wider Take on Building Back Better
The 34-page Throne Speech was titled A Stronger More Resilient Canada, and featured multiple references to “building back better” that went farther still than what the climate community in Canada and beyond began introducing in the early weeks of the pandemic. In fact, as one observer told The Mix, those references in the first half of the speech initially made it sound as though climate action would be treated as an afterthought.
The pivot began when Payette laid out what the government is calling its resiliency agenda for the middle class.
“Around the world, advanced economies are realizing that things should not go back to business as usual,” she said. “COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities in our societies,” and Canada’s response “will include addressing the gaps in our social systems, investing in health care, and creating jobs. It will also include fighting climate change, and maintaining a commitment to fiscal sustainability and economic growth as the foundation of a strong and vibrant society.”
After running through a long list of community supports that make up the government’s resilience agenda, the Governor General asserted that “climate action will be a cornerstone of our plan to support and create a million jobs across the country,” adding that “Canadians also know climate change threatens our health, way of life, and planet. They want climate action now, and that is what the government will continue to deliver.”
The Throne Speech commits the Trudeau government to:
• “Immediately bring forward a plan to exceed Canada’s 2030 climate goal”;
• Legislate a 2050 target of net-zero emissions;
• Create thousands of jobs and reduce Canadians’ energy costs through building retrofits;
• Make communities safer and more resilient by investing to reduce the impacts of flooding and wildfires;
• Support transit and active transportation;
• Make zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) more affordable and invest in more charging stations across the country;
• Cut the corporate tax rate in half for investments in zero-emission products;
• Establish a Clean Power Fund to “transform how we power our economy and communities”, through projects like an Atlantic Loop to “connect surplus clean power to regions transitioning away from coal”;
• Support investments in renewable energy and “next-generation clean energy”;
• Support the transition to net-zero in the manufacturing, natural resource, and energy sectors;
• Recognize farmers, foresters, and ranchers as “key partners in the fight against climate change, supporting their efforts to reduce emissions and build resilience.”
The speech also pointed to natural resources like nickel and copper that give Canada a competitive edge in the global race to build zero-emission vehicles and batteries.
Innovators Tout a ‘Double-Whammy’
In the hours after the speech, the Council of Canadian Innovators said it welcomed the “double-whammy” it saw for cleantech enterprises. “The one win is actually the environmental component,” said Executive Director Benjamin Bergen. “But the other is meeting your economic goals and…making sure domestic innovations are the ones that are getting the purchase orders.”
Like many other observers, Bergen stressed that the Throne Speech itself is just the first step—what will matter is the implementation. “The outline looks good, but it’s really the colouring that matters,” he told The Canadian Press.
Veteran climate analyst and low-carbon transition modeller Ralph Torrie, who helped design and lead a series of green recovery webinars and publications earlier this year, agreed that “the proof will be in the policy and budgetary commitments that follow” the speech.
“But the rhetoric hit the right notes,” he told The Energy Mix in an email. “Since we put forward our green recovery agenda in the spring, there has been a remarkable consensus develop over what would make up the main components of a federal plan, and the Throne Speech included all of them: building retrofits, electric vehicles, renewable electricity, nature-based solutions, cleantech innovation, and redeployment of the energy sector itself.
Globe and Mail columnist Adam Radwanski concluded there was relatively little new in a speech that still clarified the priorities the government will set on climate and energy. “For all the recent work of environmental policy experts to come up with ways to seize this moment of crisis to expedite the shift to a cleaner economy, the government’s imperative is mostly to get on with its old ones,” he wrote. “It will attempt to do so by underscoring economic benefits of climate policy more than it has previously, as part of a broader pledge to create a million new jobs.”
But “with that lens being applied, it’s possible to get some sense of which past commitments might now be newly prioritized and made more ambitious, which are closest to being ready for rollout, and which still need the most work,” he added. Through that lens, he identified building energy retrofits as “the stimulus program to watch”, electric vehicles and climate adaptation as areas that will receive increased focus, just transition for fossil industry workers as an area that “is getting a softer touch”, and tougher emissions targets as one of the first orders of parliamentary business this fall.
“It’s good news!” said Efficiency Canada in an email to supporters. “While the government’s top priority rightfully remains managing the COVID-19 pandemic, there were strong signals that Canada’s long-term strategy includes a clean, just, and resilient recovery. And energy efficiency is the top item in the government’s climate plan.”
“Great to hear the federal government is committing to create thousands of jobs retrofitting homes and buildings,” tweeted Ecotrust Canada. “Significant new funding is urgently needed for rural and Indigenous communities to tackle energy poverty and to build resilience.”
“We are still in the midst of a health emergency, and supporting Canadians must remain a top priority,” agreed David Suzuki Foundation CEO Stephen Cornish. “But we must also recognize that seizing this opportunity to strengthen climate action, invest in nature, and create better, greener jobs is the only way to truly emerge from the pandemic better and stronger than we were before. Environmental recovery means economic recovery.”
Electric Autonomy described an electric vehicle community that is “feeling buoyant” after a speech that put zero-emission vehicles and active transportation at the centre of the effort to exceed the country’s current, Harper-era target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30% by 2030. “Canada is starting to align the economy, health, and the environment when it comes to transportation,” said Electric Mobility Canada President and CEO Daniel Breton.
Clean Energy Canada Policy Director Sarah Petrevan called the speech a big moment for ZEVs. “Certainly we heard mention not only of the need to shift to zero-emission vehicles, but to leverage Canada’s mining and mineral natural resources to providing the materials needed to build EV batteries,” she told Electric Autonomy.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) was uncharacteristically tight-lipped in response to the speech, limiting its comment to a 102-word statement from President and CEO Tim McMillan. “The natural gas and oil industry is committed to continuing to work with the federal government on Canada’s economic recovery and leveraging the positive potential impact of the natural gas and oil industry in creating long-term and well-paid jobs for Canadians while generating revenues for governments,” he said. “Particularly at this time, with our nation’s deficit climbing, it will be critical to work together on a strong economic recovery plan that can also attract international investment back to Canada.”
So it was left to the country’s other most prominent fossil industry lobbyist, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, to write off the Throne Speech as a “fantasy plan for a mythical country”, filled with “bright shiny objects” and “kooky academic theories”. He assailed the speech as an attack on provincial jurisdiction that contained “not one word” about the economic crisis gripping the fossil industry, which he incorrectly described as the country’s largest industry.
Alberta opposition leader Rachel Notley said she found Kenney’s comments alarming. “This premier is so focused on distracting from his own inability to create jobs and restart economic growth that he is continuing his fake fights with Ottawa at the expense of the best interests of the people has been asked to represent,” she told media.
Solid Results and a Call for Action
The Throne Speech culminated months of analysis, policy development, consensus-building, and non-stop advocacy for a just, green pandemic recovery, led by CAN-Rac, its member organizations, and a wide array of partner groups outside the climate community. Many of the groups responding to the speech took a victory lap for what it contained, while stressing that the hard work to get programs in place and emissions falling has only just begun.
In an email to supporters Wednesday afternoon, 350 Canada campaigner Atiya Jaffar called the Throne Speech “the boldest climate commitment the Trudeau government has ever made. And, it’s all thanks to people like you. This kind of commitment is only possible because hundreds of thousands of people spoke up and took action to demand bold climate action and a just recovery.”
But Jaffar added that “words are not enough. We need to see action. Many of today’s commitments are repackaged promises that Trudeau has failed to deliver on for years. It has been 463 days since the government declared a climate emergency and failed to act. We need to see the Trudeau government match their words with bold action.”
“We heard a lot of the right words today, but we’ve heard too many of these promises before to simply accept them on faith,” agreed Greenpeace Canada Senior Energy Strategist Keith Stewart. “It is time for our federal government to finally act—boldly and decisively—on the green energy and nature-based solutions that can put people to work solving our health, climate, and inequality crises.” Yesterday, Greenpeace issued a scorecard that rated the speech as a package of solutions to the combined crises of climate change and inequality.
Environmental Defence Executive Director Tim Gray cited the Throne Speech promises to toughen the country’s emission reduction targets, ban single-use plastics next year, modernize the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, and implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as positives. But “there is still no vision for how Canada gets off fossil fuels or transforms our economy and energy system,” when “lives are on the line right now. Those already facing severe climate impacts—especially the most poor and vulnerable—cannot wait another five years of nice words and underwhelming action from Canada.”
Clean Energy Canada Executive Director Merran Smith said the speech “reflects a reality Canada must face and act on: if we want our economy to be competitive, we need to make it so.” However, “done right, swift government action can create good, lasting jobs,” she added, and “recovery efforts can achieve multiple objectives: lasting jobs, economic resilience, increased fairness for more Canadians, reduced pollution, and the health benefits that come with cleaner air. They can also ensure that new opportunities are created coast to coast, on fields and in factories and in home offices. This is everyone’s recovery, and everyone plays a key part in it.”
Pembina Institute federal policy director Isabelle Turcotte commended the government “for clearly stating that it sees protecting the health of Canadians, building a resilient economy, and taking strong action on climate change as different pieces of the same puzzle. It’s good news that the government recognizes the importance of positioning Canada’s economy to be competitive in the decarbonizing global marketplace and is making climate action the ‘cornerstone’ of its plan to create jobs.”
Turcotte added that “we’ll be closely watching for the details on implementation, accountability, and the scale of effort, and we look forward to developing a common understanding around a robust definition of net-zero and pathways to a safe climate.”
One of the critical responses came from Sen. Rosa Galvez, an independent senator from Quebec appointed by Trudeau in 2016. “The Speech from the Throne is a step forward,” but “unfortunately, it comes at a moment where the country needs the courage and hope to take a giant leap forward,” she said, citing this week’s Climate Action Tracker assessment that put Canada’s current climate commitments on a track for a 3.0°C world.
“This was a key moment for Canada to show we have learned from experience and set the course for years to come,” but “the government has turned its back on the bold, green, and inclusive recovery that had been in preparation since June,” Galvez said. “I fear this government is letting the transformational opportunity of this crisis go to waste, and that we will all pay for it for generations to come.”