“Canada is back” — on Friday, let’s hope for one more time with feeling

Blog - Dec. 8, 2016 - By Erin Flanagan

In November 2015, not long after forming government, Prime Minister Trudeau addressed a room full of heads of state at the UN climate talks in Paris and told them that Canada was back as a force for good in global climate action.

 Perhaps because of its panache, this line was met with more suspicion than optimism from environmentalists. The Canadian delegation’s mood in Paris was certainly different from previous years — but had much really changed?

That suspicion was fair enough: Prime Minister Trudeau made his claim without a strengthened climate target, without a plan to achieve our existing 2020 and 2030 targets, and against the headwinds of many years of federal inaction on the file. As we wrote this time last year, the success of the Paris Agreement is ultimately measured by our policy progress at home – so Canada couldn’t be “back” before it had a credible plan to reduce its emissions.

 But now, after a year of federal-provincial-territorial negotiations to hammer out a pan-Canadian climate plan, the federal government is close to earning its claim.  Recent policy announcements will bend Canada’s emissions curve and will make a sizeable contribution toward the 2030 target. If Friday’s first ministers’ meeting sees the release of additional policy measures and an accountability mechanism to ensure more progress is made with time, the federal government could rightly say it has brought legitimacy to its “Canada is back” tagline.  

A year in review, and a few questions for the new year

The last year has featured impressive (and glamorous!) high points that demonstrated a new level of commitment to climate action, but it’s also had disappointing lows — including the approval of two LNG terminals in B.C. and two oil pipelines to connect Alberta’s expanding fossil fuel production to international markets. These low points have caused some to question whether this government really understands what it’ll take to achieve the temperature limits outlined in the Paris Agreement.

But, a fair assessment of this year would have to conclude that our federal and provincial governments moved the climate action yardstick forward for the country. With the announcement of a national carbon price, an emerging clean fuels standard for transportation, buildings and industry, an accelerated phase-out of coal-fired power, regulations for new and existing sources of oil and gas methane in development, and a rapid phase-down of HFCs, Canada is finally in a position to say it is working to achieve its international climate commitments.  

 Critical details around these policies still remain. How will the clean fuels standard be designed to ensure it achieves 30 Mt of reductions in 2030, and when will it be implemented? Will the first ministers adopt a bold national action plan for energy efficient buildings? By how much will the pan-Canadian carbon price increase after 2022? Will federal-provincial equivalency agreements on an accelerated coal phase-out result in additional emissions reductions in the electricity sector, beyond what was already likely to occur? What accountability mechanism might the first ministers unveil to ensure additional policies are developed to achieve decarbonization by mid-century?

 This year’s ratification of the Paris Agreement means that we hardly have time to catch our breath before moving on to the next phase of heavy-lifting: policy development and implementation. After all, press releases and first ministers’ meetings alone don’t reduce emissions. If Canada fails to make serious progress on policy implementation and/or fails to show how it will increase national ambition post-2030, the country’s emerging credibility on climate change could be fleeting. The federal government, working with the provinces and territories, must implement all existing policy commitments quickly to unlock maximum emissions reductions towards the 2030 target, and sketch the path to greater ambition over time.

 Expectations for Friday’s meeting and release of the pan-Canadian plan

 Friday’s meeting between the prime minister and premiers is an important moment for Canada to articulate its vision for a new clean growth future. It’s also an opportunity to display intergovernmental (and, hopefully, cross-partisan) commitment to the policies that will get us there. Friday’s plan is unlikely to solve it all – but it will be an important stepping-stone to the bigger, more visionary work we need to do to transform our economy.

We have four key expectations for Friday:

EXPECTATION 1: That our first ministers release a comprehensive climate plan to meet or exceed the 2030 target, including regulations for all emitting sectors of the economy and an escalating carbon price.

 As outlined in our June submission to Minister McKenna’s climate consultation, we expect the pan-Canadian plan to include policies for the buildings, transportation, oil and gas, and electricity sectors. We’re also looking for an economy-wide carbon price that increases at a predictable rate.

On this expectation, we’re happy to note that a significant amount of progress has been made over the last few months. Still, we’re hoping Friday’s meeting will include new regulatory and financing commitments for new and existing buildings, and additional measures to reduce emissions in the transportation sector.

 EXPECTATION 2: That our first ministers release a near-term implementation schedule to ensure recent policy commitments are translated into action.

 The previously mentioned climate policies need be implemented ASAP so they can start unlocking emissions reductions towards our targets. Depending on the policy, implementation might involve two sets of regulations: one at the provincial level and one at the federal level. At a minimum, the federal government should be backstopping all major policy commitments coming out of Friday’s meeting so their success isn’t dependent on provincial adoption alone.

We’d like the pan-Canadian plan to include details on specific implementation timelines and deliverables for both federal and provincial governments. This will ensure continual progress on implementation and will create additional points of accountability between orders of governments. Going forward, we expect that provinces will step up and each commit to playing constructive roles to reduce their own emissions in order to contribute to a successful pan-Canadian plan. On this point, some provinces have their work cut out for them.

EXPECTATION 3: That our first ministers release supporting documentation that demonstrates how Canada will achieve its 2030 target through existing and new policy measures.

Once the climate policies are all announced, we want to see the math on how it all adds up to meet Canada’s emissions targets. We expect the first ministers will release detailed documentation, including modeling, that demonstrates how Canada will achieve its 2030 target through existing and new policy measures. The modeling is the balance sheet, showing where emissions are going down, stagnating, or going up across the economy. It is an essential deliverable from first ministers in order for civil society to have confidence that the pan-Canadian plan is credible. Further, this modeling will be the foundation for ongoing conversations between political leaders on how to increase ambition to achieve decarbonization by 2050.

The good news is that the first ministers are in a position to deliver on this expectation: the working group papers mandated by the Vancouver Declaration reviewed the potential efficacy of a number of different policy options. This work, coupled with the Biennial Report, provides a solid numerical foundation for first ministers to outline Canada’s emissions trajectory with the pan-Canadian climate plan in place.  

EXPECTATION 4: That our first ministers create a new accountability mechanism to ensure federal, provincial and territorial governments continue to increase climate ambition as expected in the Paris Agreement. 

In order for Canada to have long-term climate success, this meeting needs to be the beginning, not the end, of the climate policy process between first ministers. We expect they will create a structure for parties to return to the table, discuss what’s working, and determine what more needs to be done.

We would like to see a commitment to an annual “stock take” on the efficacy of implemented policies, and to use this information to design new and improved measures. Continued accountability is essential to ensure we increase ambition at a rate that puts us on a pathway to decarbonization, and should involve linking the pan-Canadian plan to Canada’s new mid-century strategy. Helpfully, the Climate Action Network has developed a proposal for how this accountability mechanism could be structured.

Moving from negotiations to transformation: maintaining momentum beyond Friday’s meeting

A lot of ground was covered this year. We’re grateful for the hardwork and progress the first ministers (and their teams of dedicated staff) have been able to achieve. And yet, we hope they will conclude this year of negotiations on a high note by announcing new policy measures, and by articulating a vision for how continued progress will be made.

When they conclude their meeting we hope they acknowledge that the heavy lifting is still in front of us. An enduring commitment to work together, to implement this year’s policy commitments in short order, and to secure deeper reductions with time would be a substantial victory for Canada.

We’ll be there on Friday, and will report back on the extent to which they’ve delivered on each of these expectations.


Erin Flanagan

Erin is the director of the Pembina Institute's federal policy program and specializes in climate policy and environmental assessments.


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