Skip to main content

A handmade sign stressing the importance of climate change as a political issue is seen outside a polling station on the last day of early in-person voting for the general elections in Cornelius, North Carolina on Oct. 31, 2020.JONATHAN DRAKE/Reuters

This week, Americans will either elect a new president with by far the most ambitious climate-change plan of anyone who has ever held the office, or re-elect a climate-change denier who goes out of his way to thwart others’ efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Never mind the caveats. Sure, Democratic nominee Joe Biden probably won’t be able to implement his entire $2-trillion climate plan if he wins, especially if his party fails to also gain control of the Senate. And yes, despite all of Donald Trump’s obstructionism, state-level governments and the private sector will take some strides toward decarbonization even if the Republican incumbent gets another term.

But it is still impossible to overstate the stakes for the future of the planet. As the clock runs down to take sufficient action to avert environmental catastrophe, the United States will either reassume its past global-leadership role, or keep retreating from it.

And as Canada struggles to figure out where it fits into that global fight – how ambitious to be in its emissions-reduction commitments, how to make good on them in ways that create economic opportunity – there is also no escaping that the leadership of its behemoth neighbour will help shape this country’s role.

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of his government have diplomatically kept quiet on their U.S. election preferences, it’s a safe assumption that – among other reasons they would rather see Mr. Biden in the White House – they would welcome a continental partner who shares their view that climate is a top priority.

But regardless of the results of the presidential vote, Canadian policy-makers won’t have a much easier path when it comes to climate change. Instead, the two possible outcomes both stand to pose new challenges alongside new opportunities. What’s in question is whether that will require Canada striking out on its own in a way it hasn’t to date, if Mr. Trump wins, or meeting a higher standard for climate action than it has previously embraced, alongside Mr. Biden.

The climate-related peril for Canada if Mr. Trump is re-elected is certainly more obvious.

If this country is serious about trying to meet its 2030 emissions-reduction goals under the Paris Agreement, and joining much of Europe and Asia in plotting a course toward net-zero emissions by 2050, it would have to break from its biggest trading partner and accept a lesser degree of continental economic integration.

Perhaps the best example of that involves road transportation, which accounts for about a quarter of Canada’s carbon footprint. Canadians and Americans drive unusually gas-guzzling vehicles relative to the rest of the world, and a key way to address that is through fuel-efficiency standards. But Mr. Trump has scrapped the plan by his predecessor Barack Obama to make those standards more stringent. If he gets another four years, Mr. Trudeau’s government may be compelled to break with the decades-long practice of aligning Canadian standards with the U.S. ones. If so, Ottawa will face industry warnings about costing jobs in an integrated auto-manufacturing sector in which Canada is the junior partner.

Even with climate-related regulations that are less directly correlated, there would be questions about how much Canada could afford to move in isolation from its neighbour – whether raising carbon prices or imposing stricter rules around oil-and-gas extraction would hurt this country competitively.

Potentially serving as disincentive to take such risks, and spend large sums on green infrastructure and other forms of climate mitigation, could be a sense of futility. The opposition Conservatives have already at times argued Canada’s climate ambition should be tempered by its small share of total global emissions, even though its per capita emissions are among the world’s highest. That could become a more common argument, and find more traction, if it will be at least another four years before there is any national effort in the U.S.

At the same time, there is also potential competitive advantage in Ottawa taking clean-economy transition more seriously than Washington, as could increasingly be the case during a second Trump term.

Attempts to help grow Canadian clean-technology sectors, using public policies from tax incentives to targeted infrastructure spends to regulatory tools, could be more successful if the U.S. isn’t doing the same. Likewise the ability to recruit talent. More traditional Canadian sectors could benefit if Canada outflanks the U.S. on climate-risk disclosure requirements, which Mr. Trudeau’s government planned to introduce in the federal budget that never happened last spring, as markets increasingly prioritize sustainable finance.

And as a matter of politics, if not the planet’s well-being, there is some comfort for Mr. Trudeau in helming North America’s greenest national government, if only by default. In a country which so often compares itself to the U.S., it makes even relatively modest climate actions look progressive and reduces pressure to do more.

If Mr. Biden wins, and has a chance to implement a climate agenda aimed at putting the U.S. on the net-zero-by-2050 path, it stands to be almost exactly the other way around.

Canada would be less isolated, better able to meets its climate targets – and suddenly less comfortable in its relative virtue, under pressure to move more aggressively in ways that could cause domestic strain.

On some fronts, Canada could return to moving in lockstep with the U.S. That would include the fuel-efficiency standards, mentioned explicitly in Mr. Biden’s platform, and possibly a mandate requiring that a growing share of new automobile sales are zero-emissions vehicles. There could be a collective push toward more sustainable practices in agriculture, another sector with a high degree of integration. There could be greater continental harmony on regulation of other industries, including fossil fuels, through measures such as newly ambitious continental targets for reducing methane emissions.

Where the policies might not line up exactly, the broad aims would be close enough that Canada would no longer be out on a limb. Even if Mr. Biden couldn’t get some form of carbon pricing through Congress (or didn’t expend political capital trying to do so), his restoration of environmental regulations scrapped by Mr. Trump and introduction of new ones could add up to a similar push to decarbonize industry. If he were able to achieve just some of his promised $2-trillion in green stimulus over four years, it could help create economies of scale that enable more efficient spending on clean infrastructure on both sides of the border.

But it’s also possible that Mr. Biden, whose platform says that upon taking office he would push allies to set emissions-reduction targets “above and beyond the commitments they have already made,” would go further than Mr. Trudeau or other Canadian leaders are currently prepared for.

While Mr. Biden has not said he would immediately do away with U.S. fracking as Mr. Trump has falsely claimed, he does seem inclined to challenge the oil-and-gas industry in ways that – particularly if Ottawa is seen to be aligned with him – could exacerbate frustrations in Alberta and Saskatchewan. In addition to pledging to cancel the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, he vows to “demand a world-wide ban on fossil fuel subsidies.” If he succeeded in expediting the U.S. transition away from fossil-fuel usage as dramatically as he is claiming, loss of business from the Canadian sector’s biggest customer would likely hasten its decline.

And although massive U.S. public investment in climate mitigation could create new sales opportunities for Canadian clean-tech, Mr. Biden – whose Democrats have a protectionist streak – would be more aggressive than Mr. Trump in using subsidies and procurement policies to get low-emissions products made in America. Mr. Trudeau’s government would likely need to boost its funding and regulatory support, if it wanted to compete.

If there is a constant between these two scenarios, it’s that the results of this week’s election will compel Canada to up its game.

Mr. Trump’s first term has been such a break from normal American governance that it made some sense for Ottawa to see if, on matters of clean-economy transition that might best involve continental cooperation, it could just wait it out.

The wait-and-see period ends once the American votes are counted. Canada will have to be more willing to go it alone, or it will suddenly have to scramble to keep pace.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.