Justin Trudeau’s government has gone from one lonely and vilified environment minister, to an all-hands-on-deck approach to transitioning Canada to a low-emissions economy and confronting the anxieties that come with that change.
In place of Catherine McKenna, a resilient and sometimes polarizing climate crusader, Mr. Trudeau appears set to rely on a team of ministers notable for their relative pragmatism and their ties to parts of the country with vulnerable resource economies.
That includes the new Environment Minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, a former clean-tech executive who, despite representing a Vancouver-area riding, originally hails from Saskatchewan. It includes Seamus O’Regan, who seems to have been named Natural Resources Minister largely because he’s from Newfoundland and Labrador, the only oil and gas reliant province that elected Liberal MPs last month. Most unusually, it includes the government’s most powerful minister, Chrystia Freeland, in an Intergovernmental Affairs posting usually comparatively minor.
And to some extent, it seems to involve the rest of cabinet, too. Speaking briefly to reporters on the way in to Wednesday’s cabinet swearing-in, Finance Minister Bill Morneau quickly identified climate change as a primary area of government focus – not something he likely would have done four years ago.
It adds up to a recognition that this government will be judged, not just next election but by future generations, by its ability to meet seemingly incompatible goals: dramatically reducing Canada’s carbon footprint in keeping with its identification of climate change as a full-fledged emergency and preserving national unity in the face of mounting alienation among provinces where livelihoods are at risk.
It also seems to be a necessary rejection of the message, offered by some Liberals since October’s election, that the hardest part of their climate strategy is in the rear-view mirror – that Ms. McKenna already rolled out the most contentious aspects of that plan, especially the federal carbon pricing regime, and now it’s on to quieter implementation.
In fact, if the Liberals are to somehow meet their election commitment to beat Canada’s emissions-reductions commitments under the Paris Agreement by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, they will need to significantly ramp up policies that Ms. McKenna introduced and put forward plenty of new ones.
To look at measures the Liberals have only promised or partly implemented so far, and to talk to environmental and energy policy experts about additional options to meet Canada’s targets, is to see potential for coming drama to dwarf what has been seen to date.
Carbon pricing is hardly settled yet, even if the election result was an endorsement of its existence in some form. Mr. Trudeau’s government faces a looming decision about whether to keep raising the federal price after 2022, when it is scheduled to rise to $50 a tonne. And although Ottawa seems likely to approve the industrial-emissions pricing regime recently introduced by Jason Kenney’s Alberta government, there are likely battles to come if that province and others don’t continually scale up their industrial policies to meet federal standards.
Potentially even more contentious is Ottawa’s planned imposition of a “clean fuel standard. Aimed at reducing energy’s carbon intensity, through some combination of efficiency improvements and greater usage of alternate sources such as biofuels, it is likely to spur complaints about higher consumer prices and industry competiveness.
Meanwhile, the government could move much more aggressively to try to expedite a consumer shift away from fossil fuels, especially when it comes to transportation. Already, it has pledged to join California and other U.S. states to impose more stringent vehicle-efficiency standards. It will also likely try to grow the domestic market for electric vehicles – including potentially by moving toward requirements that a certain share of vehicles sold are EVs, as British Columbia has recently done.
Having pledged to put federal emissions-reductions targets into legislation requiring regular reporting on whether they are being met, the Liberals will consider whether to also start adopting carbon budgets, which break those required emissions down by sector or region. And Mr. Morneau, along with his colleagues, will have to decide how much to embrace the global movement toward sustainable finance which moves money away from high-emissions investments - including whether to adopt recommendations by a federal panel that included major incentives for Canadians to direct their money toward clean-tech investments, and much greater transparency requirements for industry.
And then there is the notion of Ottawa assisting provinces reliant on fossil fuels with a “just transition,” vaguely promised in the Liberal platform and likely to be pushed by the NDP in a minority Parliament. However well intentioned the notion of helping Alberta and Saskatchewan prepare for diminished demand for their resources may be, through measures such as job training, it seems likely to feed perceptions that Ottawa is actively trying to phase out existing industry.
But that last one may also speak to where, if there is any potential for ministers with the diplomatic skills of Ms. Freeland or new-economy savvy of Mr. Wilkinson to build bridges, they may want to start.
In many ways, people in Calgary and in Ottawa are speaking different languages. That applies in many regards, but it’s especially pronounced when it comes to use of the word “transition.”
When invoked by people who are a part of the oil and gas sector, it doesn’t mean transitioning from fossil fuels – it means transitioning the existing industry, to apply cleaner technologies to extraction processes so it’s more competitive against other oil and gas producers that have lower emissions.
Shifting federal policy somewhat toward that latter definition – notably through increased financial supports for carbon capture and other, less flashy technological advances – would earn the Liberals backlash among environmentally minded supporters who see any continued support for fossil fuel extraction as being at odds with urgent climate action.
But it would also in some ways be an extension of what Mr. Trudeau has long hinted at being his grand climate bargain – an overall effort to play a leadership role in reducing global reliance on high-emissions energy sources, while continuing to support domestic industry until that shift has been completed.
Whether “transitional” funding is a key component or not, it is possible to envision the Liberals leaning further into a strategy of aggressively curbing consumer demand for fossil fuels countrywide, while helping Alberta and Saskatchewan continue to serve that demand, in a relatively responsible way, for as long as it exists.
Little to date suggests the Liberals would easily find a receptive audience for that message, in the oil patch or environmental circles. But they now have a lot of high-powered ministers in place to sell it, if that’s where they aim to go.