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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, seen here on Feb. 26, 2020, has suggested, not far off from many voices in Alberta, that as long as there remains global reliance on fossil fuels, Canada should try to meet demand with the cleanest product it can produce. But he has rarely been assertive enough about it to win Albertans’ trust.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

If he still hopes to go down in history as the prime minister who put Canada on an ambitious path to fighting climate change, Justin Trudeau might have to shift focus from the country’s most contentious source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Yes, annual emissions from Alberta’s oil sands continue to rise toward the 100 megatonne cap to which the province’s government has verbally committed, but not yet put into law. And Canada will be hard-pressed to hit its 2030 commitments under the Paris Agreement – let alone Mr. Trudeau’s promise of carbon neutrality by 2050 – unless that trend is reversed.

But lately, it’s been easy to get the impression that that’s all Canada needs to worry about. Neither government nor the public seem to be as preoccupied with the more than 500 megatonnes of annual emissions that aren’t caused by pulling oil and gas out of the ground – much of which could be tackled at less risk to national unity.

The overwhelming recent attention paid to where fossil-fuel extraction fits into Canada’s future is not by the Liberals’ design. Their procrastination over whether to approve the Frontier oil sands mine, before Teck Resources yanked its proposal, suggested they’d have happily done without it landing in their laps. And their role in the blockades crisis stemming from a First Nations dispute over a natural-gas pipeline in B.C. has been purely reactive.

But there is one important way in which the Liberals had already fallen short. They had insufficiently advanced an agenda that makes clear that Western Canada isn’t alone in this, and provides enough of a national push toward sustainability that it could not be derailed by controversies over individual projects with limited impact.

Mr. Trudeau has suggested, not far off from many voices in Alberta, that as long as there remains global reliance on fossil fuels, Canada should try to meet demand with the cleanest product it can produce. But he has rarely been assertive enough about it to win Albertans’ trust.

Nor has he been muscular enough in how he approaches the corollary: government doing all it can to hasten a consumption shift toward other energy sources. Other than a national carbon price, which at current levels has marginal impact, most Canadians would be hard-pressed to identify ways Ottawa is trying to reduce fossil-fuel usage domestically, or develop industries that could foster cleaner energy usage globally.

If the Liberals want to tell that sort of story – be less apologetic about Canada’s existing industry, but bolder in asking all Canadians to join in economic and social transition – they will soon have a golden opportunity.

Their re-elected government’s first budget and the sales job that follows could allow Mr. Trudeau’s government to draw more attention to policies it has already introduced, such as phasing out remaining coal power. But probably only if it signals that such measures are part of a comprehensive and scaled-up national plan.

That could include being more aggressive in addressing road transportation, the next biggest source of emissions after the oil and gas industry. Ottawa has made investments to try to hasten a shift to zero-emissions vehicles, mostly through charging infrastructure and purchase rebates, but it could be more ambitious on those fronts. And it has a lot more sticks that it could wield in the form of price signals to consumers and industry regulation.

It could include increased efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of commercial and residential buildings, through retrofit funding and tougher building codes and other tools at Ottawa’s disposal.

It could include a more strategically focused, better-articulated clean technology strategy. The Liberals have directed decent sums toward helping purveyors of low-emissions products scale up, and they’ll continue to do so. They’ll also likely follow up on their fuzzy campaign promise to implement a net-zero-emissions corporate tax cut. But what they haven’t really done is zero in on particular areas where Canada might build competitive advantage and help transitions to low-carbon economies elsewhere through exports – some of which, such as carbon capture and hydrogen uses, happen to have particular opportunity in Alberta.

Inevitably, some policies aimed at these ends would still be held up by Conservative politicians as proof the Liberals are trying to kill the oil sands. That’s what’s happened with carbon pricing, despite executives at some of the top oil companies supporting it. It stands to happen again with Ottawa’s in-the-works Clean Fuel Standard – which would demand lower carbon intensity over the life cycle of fuels sold in Canada – even though it would place a burden (likely passed down to consumers) on fossil-fuel importers as well as domestic producers, and shouldn’t affect exports.

But it’s presumably not beyond the Prime Minister’s capabilities to overcome those arguments. That is, if he really puts his government’s resources behind making the case – as he has only tentatively so far – that Canada can best reconcile its economic interests and global responsibilities by worrying a little less about its part in fulfilling fossil-fuel demand, and a lot more about leading the way in reducing that demand.

It’s not going to happen in one budget cycle, no matter how hard the Liberals try. But if it’s a vision that a second-term Prime Minister facing an uncertain minority Parliament end-date wants as his legacy, he needs to seize every remaining opportunity to bring it into much sharper focus.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that road transportation accounts for more GHG emissions in Canada than oil and gas extraction. In fact, road transportation is second to oil and gas.