Andrew Leach is associate professor at the Alberta School of Business, University of Alberta. In 2015, he chaired Alberta's Climate Leadership Panel.
Over the past couple of weeks, celebrity environmentalists in Canada and south of the border have called out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on climate change. David Suzuki, speaking to the National Observer, claimed that "the state of Canada's climate action was disgusting," and that "the federal government should be ashamed." U.S. author and activist Bill McKibben, writing in the Guardian, called Mr. Trudeau a hypocrite and stated that, "when it comes to…climate change, he's a brother to (U.S. President Donald Trump)."
So, should Canada should hang its head in shame, as Mr. Suzuki says? Is our Prime Minister a hypocrite and a disaster for the planet?
No, Canada should be proud of the actions that it is taking. In most countries in the world, if a leader were to announce an aggressive carbon price of $50 a tonne by 2022, the phase out of coal-fired power by 2030, mandatory climate-change risk disclosure of publicly traded companies and investments in clean technology, the McKibbens and Suzukis of the world would applaud. This doesn't happen in Canada (or at least not for long) because the environmental celebrities are distracted by the oil sands and the potential that they could grow in the near future.
In short, they fail to see the forest for the trees. If Canada's policies, implemented globally, would get us closer to meeting global goals, then we're on the right track, and that's certainty the case with what Mr. Trudeau is proposing to date.
Canada's government must focus on credible policies and not make commitments they are not prepared to keep. Every Canadian prime minister since Brian Mulroney has set targets they were not prepared to underpin with policies. Politicians face a choice: they can take action and impose some of the costs of emissions reductions on the population in return for longer-term benefits, or they can act as governments have to date by making promises and kicking the can down the road when the time comes to implement those promises. Environmental celebrities would do well to consider how they can help them choose the former.
Imagine if a Canadian government were to propose a policy that, among other measures, applied a carbon tax on all industrial emissions of $65 per tonne by 2018 (the current Liberal government carbon pricing plan would be $10 per tonne) and created a requirement that oil sands facilities built more recently than 2012 either deploy carbon capture and storage technology or reduce emissions drastically by other means. Environmentalists would applaud, right? This policy was, in fact, proposed by former prime minister Stephen Harper, and you can rest assured that there was limited applause.
So, what followed? First, Mr. Harper failed to heed the lessons of the past , since the "Turning the Corner" plan did not impose policies tough enough to achieve the 20-per-cent reduction in emissions below 2005 levels that was Canada's target at the time. The policies and the targets were widely panned by environmentalists for being nowhere near stringent enough and by others for being too stringent. The choice, it turned out for Mr. Harper, was to see that there were more votes in not acting on climate change than there were on acting.
The lesson for Mr. McKibben, Mr. Suzuki and their acolytes comes in what happened next – nearly 10 years without substantial climate-change policies in Canada, and a country well off-track from meeting its targets. This is not to say that Canada would have met its targets with "Turning the Corner" in place or that it would necessarily have been implemented with Mr. Suzuki and Mr. McKibben's support, but it's hard not to argue that active resistance to policies seen as insufficient was part of the reason we got even less-sufficient policies. If I tell my students that anything less than an A-plus paper will receive an F, I'll end up with a lot of students deciding that the paper isn't worth the effort.
There's a lesson for Mr. Trudeau in this too: Mr. Harper, in part, scripted the failure of his own policies. For a government to first set a climate-change goal and then to propose a contentious policy that fails to meet those goals seems like a self-defeating approach, but that's exactly what has happened and continues to happen in Canada. Earlier this month, government documents confirmed that meeting the targets to which Canada committed in Paris (30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030) will require policies much more stringent than those imposed anywhere in Canada today. At the same time, the government has continued to commit to ever more stringent targets.
So, what's the solution? Look at the policies and the oil sands in a global context. The onus is on Mr. Trudeau to convince Canadians that his policies and the expected outcomes from them are credible and deserve support. If celebrity environmentalists decide it's in their interest to work against those policies, they may not like the choices that result, and they likely won't be doing the environment any favours.
This might be easier if ongoing oil sands concerns were reconciled. Mr. Trudeau has made it clear that he will not strand the valuable resource the oil sands represent and is right to say that no country would. What he has said is that the oil sands will only be extracted if that activity can happen under credible climate-change policies, and Alberta's policies, with federal backstop, pass that test. The decision of extraction under these conditions will be one that responds to global markets. If the world acts aggressively on climate change, it's unlikely that oil sands extraction will remain high long into the future, but policies preventing extraction of oil sands offer no similar guarantee for global action on climate change. If you're worried about the risk of climate change, focus on climate-change policies, not oil sands.