With many Canadians engaged in a pitched pre-election debate about whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a climate hero or villain (average of all answers: yes), The Tyee’s Geoff Dembicki says he got some surprising answers when he put the question to a collection of global climate experts.
“How does Canada rate in fighting climate change?” Dembicki asks. “Better than most countries, especially ones where fossil fuels drive politics. Terribly for the world, because if every country copied Canada, that would ensure climate catastrophe. That’s the complicated picture climate policy experts in Canada and abroad shared with The Tyee.”
They said Canada is far from where it needs to be in cutting its greenhouse gas emissions, but still adopting some “courageous” and “interesting” policies when there seem to be precious few opportunities for progress on the global scene.
While the Trudeau government takes heat domestically for being on track to miss its carbon reduction targets (by 200 years, actually) under the Paris Agreement, spending billions per year on fossil subsidies it promised to eliminate, and buying us all a pipeline for C$4.5 billion, Simon Fraser University’s Mark Jaccard painted a more nuanced picture of Canada’s climate record.
“It seems to me people get so focused on the Trans Mountain pipeline as a symbol that the federal government has failed on climate policy, without paying attention to the actual policies and comparing them to the rest of the world,” he said. “When you do that, we’re among the leaders.”
“My perception is of Canada doing the right thing, like most countries Canada not doing enough, but that being quite understandable given the very difficult politics for a large fossil fuel-producing country,” agreed Frank Jotzo, director of the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at the Australian National University. At the same time, he added, “any country that’s not on track to meeting the existing relatively weak target has some questions to ask as to how ambition can be lifted.”
On the whole, though, people in the global climate policy community “view Canada as a progressive force, along with the countries of the European Union and New Zealand,” added Robert Stavins of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The Tyee points to the national carbon price that Canada introduced this year, and that Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is vowing to unwind if he wins this fall’s federal election. “It is an interesting approach in a country like Canada, and for that matter a country like the United States, where the federal government is important but the provinces and states under a federal system are also very important and have substantial authority,” Stavins told Dembicki. “We’ll have to see whether it’s successful.”
“From an Australian point of view, the decision to enact a nation-wide minimum carbon price that the Canadian government took looked very courageous,” added Jotzo, “recognizing the fact that some of Canada’s provinces are very fossil fuel-intensive.” When Australia started down that path in 2012, coal industry support helped engineer a defeat in 2013 for the government that had enacted a national carbon tax.
Jotzo also pointed to Canada’s leadership role in launching the Powering Past Coal Alliance in 2017, bolstered by its own commitment to a coal phaseout by 2030. The group, which began with 25 jurisdictions, has since expanded to 30 countries and 22 sub-national governments.
“That alliance is part of a fast-rising recognition globally that coal will no longer be growing and will be on a declining path in the future,” he said. “To my mind, the Powering Past Coal Alliance is a signal that the impending end of coal is being recognized in the mainstream of economic policy-making,” prompting would-be investors to “demand an extra premium in expected returns from coal projects because the activity itself is seen as highly risky.”
Dembicki’s interviews also explored the role a country of 37 million people, accounting for 1.6% of global greenhouse gas emissions, can expect to play on a global challenge like climate change. “If you’re a small country you can set an example for others and also try to be part of a global movement, and this is exactly what Canada is doing,” Jaccard said. “What you have to do as a small player is act in a strategic way,” and “we have a federal government right now that’s trying to do that.”