By: Sean Cameron
Canada entered the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow as one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emitters in the world, with the largest increase in emissions of any G7 nation since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2016. Earlier this year, the federal government released A Healthy Environment and A Healthy Economy plan, their climate plan with a more ambitious set of climate targets than those made in the Paris Agreement. If fulfilled, Canada’s plan is estimated to surpass its original Paris Agreement goal, but fall short of the new pledge to reduce emissions by 40-45% below 2005 levels by 2030. The pledges Canada made at COP26 still face significant barriers to implementation which calls into question the government’s ability to follow through on these policies.
In early November, national leaders and delegates met in Glasgow for the annual climate summit to discuss their plans for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and combating climate change. To keep the 1.5℃ goal in the Paris Agreement within reach, nations made several (non-binding) agreements to lower global fossil fuels emissions such as reducing methane emissions and phasing down coal production. Although there are shortcomings to each of these agreements, countries seem more willing to implement meaningful climate policies as the impacts of climate change become more apparent. If nations fulfill their pledges made in Glasgow, warming could be kept between 2.1 and 2.7 degrees above pre-industrial levels. While this rise in global temperatures would still be devastating, it’s a drastic improvement from what was considered achievable by the scientific community just a few years ago.
Canada signed the Global Methane Pledge and stated that it will reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 75% below 2012 levels by 2030. However, multiple reports show that Canada’s emissions from methane which account for 13% of the country’s total emissions have been significantly undercounted. Following through on methane reductions will be a challenge if Canada is unable to determine how much they are emitting in the first place. The federal government currently has separate “equivalency agreements” with British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan on methane regulations and reduction strategies.
Canada also agreed to the Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement which will phase down global coal production for major emitters by the 2030s. Despite Canada pledging five years ago to phase out coal-fired power by 2030 and Trudeau’s campaign promise to stop thermal coal production by 2030, federal legislation has yet to be introduced to turn either pledge into policy. Of the 57 million tonnes of coal Canada produced in 2019, 37 million tonnes were exported. Canada produces both thermal coal (used to generate electricity) and metallurgical coal (used in steel production and manufacturing) and is the fourth largest exporter of metallurgical coal in the world. Criticism has already been levied against the federal government’s hypocrisy in urging other nations to eliminate coal power while exporting coal to other countries where it will be burned. Despite originating in Canada, fossil fuels burned elsewhere do not count towards Canada’s own emissions, allowing the country to continue profiting from their continued use.
Perhaps Canada’s most noteworthy pledge at COP26 came when Trudeau restated his election promise to place a cap on oil and gas emissions “today and ensure they decrease tomorrow at a pace and scale needed to reach net-zero by 2050”. When asked how this policy would work, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said that they would consult Canada’s Net-Zero Advisory Body to create the policy to cap industry emissions. Environmental groups and members of that same Advisory Body have criticized the government for its lack of ambition and clarity. Guilbeault was unable to answer what consequences oil and gas producers would face if they exceeded the emissions cap.
Turning these plans into policy will surely be contested by the provinces they negatively impact. Already, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has criticized the federal government for failing to consult with Alberta on its climate plans. Trudeau’s pledge to cap emissions received additional criticism for not including a cap on oil and gas production as well as on emissions, as this omission allows Canada to continue extracting oil and gas, exporting it to other markets, and avoid raising our own emission totals. When asked about this omission, Guilbeault said the federal government cannot constitutionally cap production because control over natural resources falls under provincial jurisdiction. Coal-mining companies have also brought legal challenges on jurisdictional grounds in response to the federal government’s goal to phase out coal production.
If the federal government cannot impose fossil fuel production limits on provinces, it must focus instead on softer policy levers, including incentivizing the clean energy transition while discouraging continued fossil fuel production. Canada spent nearly two billion dollars subsidizing oil and gas in 2020. These subsidies could be directed towards developing sustainable technologies and skill training programs that support transitioning fossil fuel industry workers to the renewable energy sector. Another option for the federal government is to continue applying legislation that allows for scrutinization and accountability over matters concerning the environment. Bill C-69, which passed in 2019, created the Impact Assessment Agency, allowing the federal government to prohibit thermal coal mining and expansion projectswhen they pose a certain amount of environmental risk or are unaligned with Canada’s climate change goals.
Coordination and cooperation between the federal and provincial governments will be essential if Canada hopes to achieve its climate targets. But if provinces insist on exploiting fossil fuels at a time when Canada is warming at twice the global average rate, the federal government must do everything in its power to compel them to get on board. The federal government has successfully implemented a national carbon tax despite opposition from several provinces, demonstrating political will to meet their environmental promises. Canada’s leadership must continue using its legislative authority to make it clear to provinces that the only responsible option for future ecological prosperity is to transition away from fossil fuels in a timely, cohesive manner.
Sean Cameron is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Geography from the University of British Columbia. He is currently working as a Research Assistant for the Committee on the Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainability. Sean is interested in exploring how public policy can confront climate change while reducing social inequality in urban and rural communities.