With the new U.S. administration taking real action on climate change, both domestically and internationally, Canada will have to show up next week at President Joe Biden’s climate leadership summit with more than just words, former Irish president Mary Robinson said Wednesday.
“Canada needs to have a sense that it’s not just words at a summit,” Robinson told a virtual news conference Wednesday hosted by Climate Action Network-Canada (CAN-Rac). “I’m afraid that Prime Minister [Justin] Trudeau had good words at recent summits, but they haven’t been followed up by the policies.” Next week, “that’s not going to be credible at the outset,” because that “disconnect” is a part of the way Canada is perceived internationally.
With its greenhouse gas emissions still rising each year and other countries setting far more ambitious carbon reduction targets, it’s time for Canada to begin living up to its perception of its own climate leadership, added Robinson, who now chairs The Elders, a group of senior international leaders founded by Nelson Mandela in 2007.
“There’s a perception that Canada is a bit better than it is in reality,” she told participants. No other G7 country has seen its emissions increase since the 2015 Paris Conference, and the United Kingdom “is half-way to net-zero before Canada has even begun.”
‘Step Up Right Away’
For members of the international community, “it’s not about criticizing negatively but about encouraging positively, and I positively want to encourage Canada to step up,” she added. But the disconnect between perception and reality creates a bind for the Trudeau government, with nearly three-quarters of Canadians telling pollsters the country is on the right track with its climate policies.
“I wouldn’t want to be part of a government that was behind the people,” she said. “The solution is to “step up in the right way,” with a series of five-year domestic carbon budgets and a renewed commitment to international climate finance.
An early, essential step would be for Canada to at least double its climate finance contribution from its current $800 million per year, Robinson told participants. The country’s fair share commitment has been calculated at $4 billion.
“The richer parts of the world have to address the fact that there’s an injustice in the impacts of climate change,” she explained. “That’s what climate justice is all about. It’s unfair that the poorest communities, Indigenous peoples, small island states, have been affected early and disproportionately by climate,” when they bear the least responsibility for the greenhouse gas emissions at the root of the problem.
But she added that Canada is far from alone in dodging that duty, noting that the world’s wealthiest countries are still far from meeting a 2009 promise to devote at least US$100 billion per year to international climate finance by 2020.
Time for Canada to Catch Up
Ruth Ivory-Moore, program director for environment and corporate social responsibility at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pointed to the opportunities for Biden and Trudeau to work together on shared climate action priorities like methane regulation, clean fuel standards, and green electricity. But “there are several areas where an incoming Biden administration is setting a new standard of climate leadership, and Canada has to catch up.”
Out of the “so many positive things that are happening” since Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris took office January 20, Ivory-Moore singled out a sharp focus on environmental justice that spans every U.S. government agency and every piece of legislation. That’s essential when the most marginalized people in the society are also most severely affected by the impacts of climate change, she said. Beyond setting ambitious, big-picture carbon reduction targets, she said countries must have “an inclusive process, that we make sure those who have the most at stake are a part of the process.”
Session moderator and CAN-Rac Executive Director Catherine Abreu pointed to a “really interesting awakening” on environmental racism in Canada, reflected in a private member’s bill that recently passed Second Reading in the House of Commons. But while the political conversation has begun, “we’re not really seeing those kind of social justice outcomes baked into environmental and climate policy in this country.”
She asked Ivory-Moore how to design strategies in which “the positive social outcomes aren’t incidental, but the intention of climate policy.”
Ivory-Moore replied that climate impacts like displacement and food insecurity are increasing, and “those affected are usually the most vulnerable, marginalized, people of colour. We need to make sure we have spaces to address those issues,” while recognizing that structural, systemic racism dates back hundreds of years and that the solutions will vary across communities. The common denominator, she said, is to “make sure we don’t leave anyone behind,” and that no one sees disproportionate impact based on their race, gender, ethnicity, ability, or age.
Last Chance to Reorient Economies
Brian O’Callaghan, lead researcher and project manager at Oxford University’s Economic Recovery Project, said the arrival of the Biden-Harris administration and the response to the pandemic have combined into “a chance, perhaps the last chance, for governments around the world to reorient their economies so that they’re decoupled from fossil fuel emissions.”
But while the justice-aid nexus is central to that conversation, “unfortunately Canadian action does not quite match the green rhetoric so far,” he said. While Canada has invested about US$17 billion in green initiatives, he cited several European countries that have allocated far more.
At the same time, Canada has handed C$18 billion in funding to the fossil industry over the last year, according to a research update released this week by Environmental Defence Canada, putting it in the same league as global climate laggards like Australia, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
“To be clear, that’s unacceptable, and Canadians shouldn’t stand idly by as their taxpayer dollars are used for those unsustainable enterprises,” O’Callaghan said. “If we are going to make significant inroads against climate change, we have to get rid of those spending measures. And if we’re to be preparing our economies for the future and ensuring that we aren’t left in a state where oil and gas extraction facilities just have to shut down overnight because they’re no longer economic…we need to be investing now in an economic transition.”
Asked what level of commitment Canada would have to bring forward to avoid embarrassment at next week’s Earth Day summit, all three panelists said the goal should be to stand out as a leader—not just to avoid humiliation.
“I’m nowhere near versed enough in matters of international relations and political affairs to know what is not an embarrassment,” O’Callaghan said. But “there are opportunities for Canada as a resource-dependent country to be a leader among resource-dependent countries.” Places like Australia, China, and Brazil are looking toward an economic transition but unsure how to get there, he added. “So I would of course like to see enhanced targets, enhanced COVID recovery spending, but I’d also like to see some type of demonstration of a willingness to transition the economy in an accelerated fashion. All I’m saying is to go beyond the targets.”
Ivory-Moore said the U.S. and Canada have a positive relationship, and “the more we collaborate and the more we push each other, the better we will see things happening.