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Assessing Trudeau’s Environmental Record: The First Year

The October 19, 2015 federal election was widely interpreted as a watershed moment in Canadian environmental policy. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals presented a platform with extensive environmental commitments, and the election outcome was seen in many parts of the country as rejection of the Stephen Harper’s Conservative’s resource-export oriented “Responsible Resource Development” Strategy and subsequent re-writing of federal environmental legislation through the notorious Bill C-38.

I have revisited my pre-election assessment of the party platforms around key environmental issues. In particular I have updated the table to focus on the Liberal party commitments, and to provide a brief assessment of progress so far. I have also left the original “What needs to be done” column in place, to provide a sense of the scope of action that had been identified as being needed to address the major environmental challenges facing Canada.

Although the change in tone from the federal government over the past year relative to the Harper era has been remarkable, the story in terms of substantive progress on legislation and policy has been much less impressive.  So far the core of the Harper environmental legacy remains firmly in place.

An environmental and regulatory review process was set in motion June 2016, focused on the key Bill C-38 themes of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA), National Energy Board, and the Fisheries and Navigation Protection (formerly Navigable Waters Protection) Acts. However, these processes seem unlikely to produce legislative changes anytime soon. In meantime, the review and approval of major energy infrastructure projects, such as the recently approved Northwest LNG project in BC, and reviews of the Kinder-Morgan Alberta to BC pipeline expansion, and Alberta-Saskatchewan-Manitoba-US Line 3 pipeline expansion are proceeding under Harper era C-38 framework. This has been modified, in some cases, by non-legislative ‘interim’ process requirements related to climate change and consultation with aboriginal people, announced in January 2016. It seems that these and other key projects, carrying high risks of locking-in a high carbon export pathway for the Canadian economy, will be approved long before the environmental and regulatory review process is completed.

On climate change, Canada’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) tabled under the December 2015 Paris Agreements reflect precisely the same climate change targets (a 30% reduction in emissions by 2030 relative to 2005) presented by the Harper government. A national carbon pricing regime was announced by the Prime Minister two weeks ago, with a minimum federal price of $10/tonne beginning in 2018. Although unquestionably a major development in terms of Canadian climate change policy, there appears to be an implicit bargain that those provinces, including BC, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, already acting on some form of carbon pricing are unlikely to be asked to do more than they have already committed. This will present serious challenges in terms of meeting Canada’s greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, as those provinces that have not moved on carbon pricing so far, such as Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland, represent a relatively small portion of Canada’s overall emissions. The challenges are compounded by the consideration that it seems federal approval of major carbon export infrastructure is part of the bargain for the implied agreement (or at least non-objection) of some provinces to the carbon pricing proposal, including an oil sands pipeline to tidewater for Alberta, and LNG infrastructure for BC.

There has been modest progress in some areas, like ocean and freshwater science, though the 2016 budget, and the termination of some of the more egregious Harper projects in nation parks (e.g. the Mother Canada project in Cape Breton Highlands). The story so far on other, more substantive fronts remains stalled at best.  Despite high profile platform commitments to rewrite the rules for political activities by charities, the existing rules remain in place, and the CRA program of audits of charities for political activities has continued. A promise to give the Access to Information Commissioner the power to order the release of government documents, now seems in limbo, and there is no sign of changes to the Conservative’s security legislation, Bill C-51 to “better balance our collective security with our rights and freedoms.”

The first year in office tends to be a crucial window for major initiatives by newly elected governments. With the exception of the carbon pricing proposal which, although of major significance, still falls far short of what is needed to meet Canada’s GHG emission reduction targets, overall progress has been remarkably modest. It remains to be seen if the government’s second year produces more progress on undoing the legacy of the lost decade left by Mr. Harper.