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The October 2015 Election and its Consequences: A Game changing event in Canadian Environmental Policy?

December 2, 2015
The defeat of the Conservative government of Stephen Harper inspired a host of analogies from the speakers at the November 27th SEI seminar on the Trudeau government, the Environment, Energy and Climate Change. The demise of the Conservatives government was likened to the destruction of the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings and to the downfall of the evil Sith Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars Episode VI. What follows reflects in part the comments made by the panelists at the November 27th event, as well as some observations of my own.

There is indeed much to be celebrated by those concerned with environmental sustainability, social justice and democratic governance in Canada. The change in tone from the federal government has been remarkable, with Prime Minister Trudeau and his ministers placing welcome emphases on science, evidence, consultation, and inclusion in their approach to policy-making. The composition of the new cabinet reflects a generational shift in leadership, epitomized by the Prime Minister himself. Moreover, the federal policy agenda is not completely dominated by fiscal issues for the first time in four decades. These developments were seen by some speakers on November 27th to offer an opportunity to break the intellectual hold of neo-liberalism on Canada’s political discourses. We have already seen the release of many voices: civil society; scientists and public servants; and moderate and progressive Conservatives.

The causes for hope have been further reinforced by arrival of Rachel Notley’s NDP government in Alberta. Last week Ms. Notley’s government announced a substantial carbon tax, a hard 100 megatonne cap on oil sands GHG emissions (with the implication that some of Alberta’s carbon may be unburnable), and a phase out of coal-fired electricity. The jurisdiction that has acted as the ‘veto state’ from the beginning of the climate change conversation in Canada more than twenty years ago, has now potentially repositioned itself as a leadership state on climate change.

In political terms, post-materialist voters, who emphasize concerns like the environment and social justice, have constituted a majority of Canadian voters for some time. However, over past decade the post-materialist vote was been fragmented among four different parties (Liberals, NDP, Greens and the BQ), facilitating a series of Harper election victories. The October 19th outcome represented a consolidation of that vote behind Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, in part as a result of the efforts of civil society initiatives like

The giddy optimism of the departure of the Harper government notwithstanding, there are reasons to approach the arrival of the Trudeau government with caution as well. In environmental terms the new government has actually done very little so far. As Tim Harper of the Toronto Star put it last week in reference to the November 21st First Minister’s conference on climate change, Mr.Trudeau has “set a dinner table, not a ((n) emission reduction) target.” To the extent to which a target has been adopted, it has been the one left of the table by the Harper government of 30 per cent reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 relative to 2005, although Trudeau’s environment minister, Catherine McKenna, has been at pains to emphasize that this is a “floor” target, rather than a ceiling. The new government’s approach to the Paris Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) has been to seek to avoid any agreement on binding and legally enforceable targets, but rather to focus on process elements, such as the reporting of targets and outcomes, of an agreement. Such an outcome may leave us no further ahead than in Copenhagen in 2009.

The most substantial indication of the new government’s intended directions are contained in the ministerial mandate letters and cabinet committees announced on November 4th. The mandate letters were largely cribbed from the Liberal party platform, distributing various commitments among the relevant ministers, suggesting limited attention having been given to how activities are to be coordinated and integrated, particularly where multiple ministers are given roles around a specific initiative. The letters also revealed some significant gaps. Although the economic opportunities presented by the need for a transition to low-carbon economies figured prominently in the platform, no minister was designated as the lead on this issue. A similar situation exists with respect to climate change adaptation.

Environment minister McKenna in particular is saddled with a veritable laundry list of items, running a high risk of agenda overload. Surprisingly neither McKenna nor Foreign Affairs minister Stepan Dion, who is also expected to play a significant role on the climate change file, are members of the cabinet committee on “Agenda and Results” (i.e. the priorities and planning committee). Dion chairs a Cabinet Committee on Environment, Climate Change and Energy, but there is no reference to low carbon transitions or clean technology development in the mandate of the key economic committee on “Inclusive Growth, Opportunities and Innovation.” Ms.McKenna, although assigned a leadership role on the climate change file, heads what has become a relatively junior line department. She may find that she lacks the kind of central agency clout needed within government to move significant measures forward, particularly where they affect the mandates of multiple departments.

The new government has made a clear commitment to “put a price on carbon.” With a number of provinces already moving in this direction, albeit using different approaches (BC and Alberta employing carbon taxes and Ontario and Quebec cap and trade) the situation begs questions about the nature of the federal government’s role in achieving such an outcome. Will it simply be an aggregator of provincial efforts, which on their own are unlikely to meet Canada’s already modest emission reduction targets, or will it play a role in setting a floor price for carbon? The Liberal platform makes reference to a carbon trust to facilitate provincial action, but sticks as well as carrots are likely to be needed. What role will the federal government play in leading investments in clean technology? The situation is further complicated by the absence (outside of Quebec) of an overall societal consensus around need for low-carbon transitions.

The question of the record of the previous Liberal federal government on climate change and the environment was also raised. Despite very substantial commitments in the 1993 Liberal Red Book platform, Mr. Chretien’s government ended up moving in two profoundly contradictory directions, committing to ambitious emission reduction targets through its signing and ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, while at the same time adopting fiscal measures that were central to the dramatic expansion of oils sands production, and its associated GHG emissions, over the past decade. There were major internal struggles over the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the habitat protection provisions of the Fisheries Act (s.35), as well.

The Liberal McGuinty government in Ontario, in which a number of Mr. Trudeau’s key political staff served, was characterized by a policy style of ‘balance.’ Major progressive initiatives like the Greater Toronto Area Greenbelt and the Green Energy and Green Economy Act were always ‘balanced’ by more conservative and even regressive movements – a deregulatory Open for Business initiative, for example, some of whose elements would have put Mike Harris’ common sense revolutionaries to shame, and an ironclad commitment to nuclear energy regardless of costs and risks. Such an approach will make the kind of transformational progress required to meet even the modest GHG emission “floor” targets adopted by Mr. Trudeau’s government very difficult.

A number of important principles related to the approval of energy projects and the federal environmental assessment process were articulated in Liberal party platform, including references to evidence-based decision-making and public participation. Contradictory signals have already begun to emerge on what direction reform might take. Industry desires certainty. Having agreed to a carbon cap on the oil sands via Alberta’s climate change strategy, there is an expectation that projects, like pipelines to tidewater, will get approved. At the same time for the process to be credible, and to be able to produce decisions that are seen as legitimate and therefore likely to win acceptance, a ‘no’ decision has to be a real possibility.

The next few months will be a crucial period for Canada’s environment, where it will become clearer if the promise of a new age, following October 19th, will be fulfilled.