Steven Guilbeault could look at the thousands of protesters gathered on the streets of Glasgow on Friday, outside the cordoned-off COP26 climate conference where he is representing Canada as the country’s new Environment Minister, and see himself.
“I was those kids,” Mr. Guilbeault said. He attended the very first such United Nations climate conference back in 1995, in Berlin, when “a gymnasium with 600 kids from around the world” served as his hotel room.
“I blockaded the doors to the Berlin meeting because we said countries hadn’t finished the job, so they couldn’t leave,” he recalled.
He hastened to add that the blockade at that time was “purely symbolic,” since there was another exit delegates could use. But, as he sat in suit and tie inside the Canadian delegation’s office here, his talk of his activist days brought to mind the questions on the lips of everyone with stakes in Canadian climate policy.
Namely, how much has Mr. Guilbeault changed since he co-founded the influential environmental group Equiterre and became a household name in Quebec as an early leader of the climate movement? Is he now a different man than the one who was once arrested for a protest stunt at the CN Tower?
And now that he has been named to a job that puts him at the forefront of imposing promised new emissions caps on oil-and-gas production, will he be able to stay true to himself without fanning national-unity flames in resource-reliant provinces and alienating anyone in Canada fearful of domestic disruption in the name of saving the planet?
His response, more or less, is that he hasn’t needed to change that much at all, because he has long been balancing his ideals with the practicalities and limitations of public policy.
“A friend of mine once said I was a radical pragmatist,” he responded. “So the ideas that I’m promoting are pretty radical; the changes that I would like to see in our society and globally are pretty radical. But there’s a pragmatic side of me that understands that we can’t do that overnight.”
Even before he was first elected to Parliament in 2019, he said, his position was that new investment in fossil-fuel infrastructure should end, but that rapidly shutting down what already exists was a non-starter. For example, he said he has never joined calls to shut down Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline, which transports Alberta oil into Eastern Canada, because easterners would just get their oil from elsewhere and it would do nothing for emissions.
He used to be seen as a “traitor” by some of his more hardline environmentalist colleagues, he recalled, for being willing to work with businesses and government – including by standing alongside Rachel Notley, then the Alberta premier, when she announced a provincial oil-and-gas emissions cap less stringent than the federal one is likely to be.
Nevertheless, since being named less than two weeks ago to what is widely believed to be his dream job, he has seemingly had an easier time with those who seek ambitious climate action than those who fear it.
He acknowledged that there is some disappointment among his activist friends at COP26 that Canada is staying away from the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, a coalition being launched by Denmark and Costa Rica, which aims to set an end date for fossil-fuel production. (Quebec Premier François Legault announced in Glasgow this week that his province will join, but Mr. Guilbeault confirmed to The Globe and Mail that the federal government will not.)
But environmental groups mostly seem excited by the possibilities of having Mr. Guilbeault leading Ottawa’s climate strategy, and have given him credit for new commitments made at the conference – most notably a pledge, as part of an international pact, to end Canada’s international financing of fossil-fuel projects.
By contrast, his appointment as Environment Minister was received warily by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who called it “very problematic.” More quietly, industry groups – in fossil fuels, and other emitting sectors – have been anxiously trying to gauge whether Mr. Guilbeault’s presence means much more aggressive and less co-operative environmental regulation than in the past.
Mr. Guilbeault, who comes off as fairly unassuming and soft-spoken in person, replied that he’s “certainly not looking for confrontation,” and has already been having “very constructive” conversations with key private sector players. Likewise with at least one premier of an oil-producing province: Newfoundland and Labrador’s Andrew Furey. (Mr. Guilbeault allowed with a laugh that “it’s not like that with everyone.”)
Mr. Guilbeault has shown flashes of difficulty, so far, in setting aside activist views that don’t quite align with Ottawa’s agenda. Asked at a press conference on COP26′s first day about nuclear power, a highly contentious subject among environmentalists, he expressed doubts about its ability to compete with increasingly cheap renewable energy, such as wind and solar power. The next day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had to clarify that his government sees nuclear as a piece of the clean-energy puzzle.
But it’s the development of the oil-and-gas caps, which he is co-leading with Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson (who was his predecessor at Environment), that will really test his ability to keep all sides happy.
At this stage, he said, that policy process – formally launched during COP26 – is still at the “conceptual stage.” The government is committed to freezing the industry’s emissions at current levels and then lowering the caps in five-year increments, but details such as future stringency or whether the limits are sector-wide or specific to each site won’t be set until after promised consultations with provinces, companies and others.
“Will there be some flexibility? I imagine that there will be,” Mr. Guilbeault said. “But not at the price of not reducing emissions.”
He cast some doubt on the ability of carbon capture, storage and utilization (CCUS) to help companies achieve compliance with emissions caps. The oil-and-gas industry and its provincial champions are placing much faith in the technology, and Ottawa has promised new tax incentives for it. CCUS is “a big part of the conversation,” Mr. Guilbeault said, but not “in the short term.”
“There are no commercially available CCUS technologies out there that companies could implement in the coming years that would help them reduce their emissions,” he said, though he prefaced that by saying that it’s a subject on which he’s “really not an expert” yet.
On other key files awaiting him, Mr. Guilbeault has more of a head start. Those include the promised introduction of national sales quotas for electric vehicles, which he was involved in developing at the provincial level in Quebec. He noted that he is versed in the various options for implementation and how to deal with the auto sector.
On all his new responsibilities, which also include the continued setting of national climate targets and the implementation of related accountability mechanisms, he knows he’ll keep being prodded by his old colleagues in the environmental movement to move harder and faster, and in some cases will have to disappoint them.
He said he welcomes that sort of pressure, which has contributed to someone like him being in a decision-making role now, able to speak about emissions reduction and industrial transformation as a top government priority.
“It’s their role to keep our feet to the fire,” he said. “And it helps us. It creates space so that we can do more things or have conversations that maybe we would not have been able to have just five or 10 years ago.”
Back then, after all, he would have been on the outside of the negotiations here, looking in.
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