With the United States planning to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, European nations such as France and the Netherlands are likely to fill the leadership vacuum at the United Nations’ climate change conference kicking off in Bonn, Germany, this week.
Unless Canada steps up to the plate now, the upcoming meeting, also known as the 23rd session of the Conference of the Parities (COP23), could become one more missed opportunity for Canada.
Canada has — since the nation’s abdication from the Kyoto Accord in 2011 — been a relative laggard on climate change policy. According to the 2017 Climate Change Performance Index, released by the Climate Action Network Europe, Canada still ranks among the worst of the 58 countries assessed.
The most recent evidence of the government’s insincere promises and weak climate policies can be seen in its green light to the Kinder Morgan pipeline in British Columbia.
Although Canada ratified the Paris Agreement under Trudeau, the government has yet to deliver meaningful policy that can change behaviour in favour of the climate.
A national carbon tax of $50 per tonne of carbon emitted will be implemented over five years by adding $10 per tonne each year until it reaches $50 per tonne in 2022. However, oil and gas firms have been shadow pricing carbon for years.
For example, a Harvard case study examining British Columbia’s leadership on the carbon tax from 2008 to 2009 finds that even a tax of $100 per tonne will not change fossil fuel companies’ decisions.
There are many other models of carbon taxation that Canada could follow. For example, Sweden leads on carbon tax policy and finds that it is good for its economy. Sweden’s carbon tax amounts to the equivalent of $200 per tonne.
A more effective Canadian policy would be to start at $100 per tonne of carbon emitted and add $20 per tonne per year for five years, bringing the rate up to where Sweden is today. But this would be playing catch-up, not providing leadership.
Direct policies are even better. Canada could phase out fossil fuels and phase in clean, safe renewable energy. These transitions are possible: we phased out inefficient incandescent light bulbs.
Wanted: Climate innovation
In past climate discussions, Canada has positioned itself as it would during trade negotiations. Its approach has been to get the best deal while minimizing change or acceding to corporate interests. But climate change is not a trade agreement — climate change is the most urgent issue of our time and requires global cooperation.
Canada must do more than offer symbolic support to existing solutions to mitigate climate change. The nation has a chance to lead, but it must do so by example, not only in words. Other nations and regions, including Europe, China and India have made concrete headway since ratifying the Paris Agreement.
Several countries are phasing out the sale of gasoline and diesel cars, and cities like Paris plan to ban them from their streets. France and the United Kingdom have said that they will ban the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles by 2040. Germany is in discussions with its auto industry to find solutions. Norway and the Netherlands say they’ll hit that target sooner, in 2025 and 2030 respectively.
Norway is a petro state, just like Canada. Yet even Norway is booting vehicles with combustion engines from its roads. For Norway, electric vehicles represent a strategic industry that will boost its economy.
At the same time, in many international circles, the issue centres on health and safety — carbon pollution makes us sick.
A race to the top
To lead, Canada has to distance itself from its recent past behaviours and engage in a race to the top. Dropping out of the Kyoto Accord was shocking. Our national carbon emissions are tops on a per capita basis and are high on other relative measures. At climate discussions, we have had a reputation for dragging forward movement backwards.
Although the press liked to talk about the “bromance” between U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, these leaders took fundamentally different policy positions. Obama was progressive, while Trudeau is regressive. Obama stopped the Keystone XL pipeline in the name of “national interest,” whereas Justin Trudeau has supported pipelines even in the face of mounting opposition.
Canada could shake off its tar-sands reputation by stepping forward and doing the unexpected. On a sector-by-sector basis, we should implement carbon reduction policies by specific dates. Most carbon emissions come from the energy and transportation sectors; focusing on these can be tremendously effective at reducing carbon emissions.
We could, for example, ban the use of combustion engines in vehicles by 2025, stop all newly proposed pipeline projects and plan a phase out of tar sands operations by 2030. Canada should also phase out coal-fired and gas power plants in favour of renewable energy by 2025.
Other sectors such as buildings, agriculture and industry also emit greenhouse gases, and must be addressed. Definitive policies in a stable environment are critical for building Canada’s future clean sustainable industries.
By standing out on climate change, Canada would win international respect and regain the trust that it has recently lost.
If Canada leads on the Paris Agreement, the country demonstrates that it is a viable trade partner in Europe’s eyes. EU nations have a defined circular economy strategy that avoids damaging the Earth by resource and energy use. These nations want environmental, social and institutional or governance principles tied to trade agreements. In turn, we would become a trusted partner on the international stage.
International trade could also reduce our economic reliance on the United States, a nation that is increasingly isolating itself, and connect Canada — and the provinces — to markets that would allow us to be part of the global circular economy. Sustainable development opportunities with the European Union, China and India could open markets for Canadian provinces whose economies now rely on fossil fuels, allowing for their economic diversification. These provinces need support to make the shift.
Eight years ago, Canada set a target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 17 per cent by 2020 compared to 2005 levels. That target now looks unattainable, but it could still meet the 2030 target of reducing emissions by 30 per cent relative to 2005 levels.
The Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change is a step in the right direction, but we need more. As long as Canada’s climate policies continue to feed fossil fuel use, the country will not lead at COP23 — a missed opportunity at a crucial time.