Months before the recent federal election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signalled that his government needs to pick up the pace in implementing its climate plan – and that a lack of urgency and co-ordination across its ministries stands in the way.
That tacit message came in the establishment of a new climate secretariat at the bureaucratic centre of government, the Privy Council Office, headed by Jennifer MacIntyre, a career diplomat who previously served as Canada’s climate change ambassador. She and her small team are to work alongside Sarah Goodman, Mr. Trudeau’s top climate adviser, to get departments rowing in the same direction.
Though it’s too soon to judge its impact, it may prove a good start to challenging an inertia-prone government culture to rapidly push through the many policies needed for Canada to meet its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
But as Mr. Trudeau prepares to appoint a new cabinet, he has the opportunity to go further: He can choose to reconfigure his government, through structural or personnel changes, to make the transition to a clean economy the overarching priority he presented it as on the campaign trail.
The cabinet and the bureaucracy supporting it, as they have existed to this point, are really not set up to implement the dauntingly ambitious climate platform the Liberals just ran on. In addition to various policies still in nascent form pre-election, that agenda now includes new promises such as caps on oil and gas sector emissions, sales quotas for electric vehicles, a net-zero emissions electrical grid by 2035 and an array of tax credits and other measures to support clean technology development.
An obvious assumption is that Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) is primarily responsible for implementing all that, since the environment minister tends to be the government’s public point person on the subject. But ECCC is actually a relatively small department with primarily regulatory functions and minimal capacity to develop programs.
Instead, a lot of the responsibility rests with Natural Resources Canada – including some elements, such as energy retrofits for buildings and EV charging infrastructure, that don’t leap out as a natural fit. Other core pieces of the agenda are spread across the ministries of Transportation, Infrastructure, Industry and Finance, among others. And that presents a couple of big obstacles commonly identified by climate policy advocates.
One of the problems is overlap in who’s responsible for what. That can lead to strategies getting bogged down by disagreements or turf battles, which seems to have been an issue with EV programs hashed out by several ministries at once. It can also mean that nobody takes ownership of particularly onerous undertakings, such as adjusting government procurement policies to promote Canadian-made clean technologies.
The other, probably bigger, barrier is that climate has never been a focal point for many of these departments – and in some cases is actively at odds with their other priorities.
That applies in particular to Natural Resources, which is highly sensitive to the needs of the oil and gas industry and has prioritized improving relations with oil-producing parts of the country under its most recent minister, Seamus O’Regan. It’s not natural or easy for it to fast-track policies that involve decreasing reliance on fossil fuels. That may explain why, for instance, there was no movement on the Liberals’ 2019 campaign promise to develop a strategy for oil and gas workers who may lose their jobs during a clean-energy transition, until Mr. O’Regan launched consultations right before the 2021 campaign.
There have been similar tensions at other ministries – Industry, reluctant to push that sector too hard on EV transition, or Agriculture, tentative at best in nudging farmers toward more sustainable practices.
It may be defensible in each case, on the basis of short-term needs of key sectors. But it’s not compatible with the full-throttle transition the Liberals have promised.
There are a few ways Mr. Trudeau could address that through the new cabinet.
One of them would be to centralize as many climate-policy responsibilities as possible, and the resources to handle them, in one place.
If Mr. Trudeau really embraced upheaval, that could mean the creation of a climate super-ministry. Departments such as ECCC and Natural Resources could be combined under the watch of one minister, elevated to one of the most senior roles in cabinet.
A somewhat more subtle version of that reconfiguration would be to just reassign some of the climate-related files currently held by other cabinet members to the environment minister. But it would also require beefing up ECCC’s funding and staffing levels, presumably at the expense of other departments.
Another option, less ambitious but less liable to create chaos, would be to appoint ministers with strong environmental credentials to ministries where the climate agenda is getting short shrift, with a mandate to refocus them.
Mr. Trudeau did a bit of that in his second mandate, when he moved former environment minister Catherine McKenna to Infrastructure. Ms. McKenna attached much more of a climate lens to the latter ministry’s investment decisions, while pushing through specific expenditures to reduce emissions, such as electrifying public transit.
There is a strong case for trying something similar at other ministries, with Natural Resources the most obvious target. Perhaps the most recent environment minister, Jonathan Wilkinson – who seems to be competent and hard-driving at policy implementation, with a low-key communication style that can limit conflict – would be a good fit for challenging that ministry to aggressively take on emissions, even at the risk of angering its oil-and-gas stakeholders.
Whether Mr. Trudeau attempts any of these sorts of disruptions will depend on how much he is willing to ruffle feathers, both inside and outside the government.
There would be resistance from Liberals wary of climate policy as the be all and end all, from entrenched bureaucrats and from sectors unaccustomed to the ministries with which they interact aggressively trying to change them.
But if he wants to go down as the prime minister who put Canada on the path to net-zero emissions, it’s not going to happen with business as usual.
A few officials in the Privy Council Office, however effective they may prove, won’t be able to reshape or reorient entire departments on their own. Mr. Trudeau will have to reach further into his government for that, and he won’t have any better opportunities to do so than the new cabinet he is deliberating over.
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