Skip to content

Sunny Ways Begin to Get Some Substance, But Trudeau Has Many Miles to Go Before His Stance on Climate Becomes Clear


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is continuing to mobilize his agenda to move Canada back from the strange place his predecessor pushed it to, into the sunlight of small-l liberal approaches to shared problems. We have 25,000 Syrian refugees identified, and either already here, or soon to get on planes to come to Canada. He has been given a ceremonial headdress, and the name Gumistiyi, which translates as ‘the one that keeps trying’ by the Tsuut’ina First Nation in Alberta. At the start of March, he participated in the first meeting with provincial and territorial premiers to have occurred in a decade. And now he is off to Washington for a state visit with Canada’s large, sometimes confusing, southern neighbor.

selfie for the one who keeps trying Ccv7I_9W8AAjnps
PM Trudeau pauses for the obligatory selfie following being honored with a ceremonial headdress and a new name – Gumistiyi – the one who keeps trying. Photo © Telegraph Journal

How well is he doing? Well, so far he is hitting the right notes most of the time, but he has not yet ventured very far into the complexities of any of the major songs in the concert he is providing for us. It remains early days.

The First Ministers Meeting


Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with the provincial and territorial premiers at the Vancouver First Ministers’ Conference. Photo © Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press.

The First Ministers Meeting in Vancouver was a good example of what is happening, and what is yet to happen. A major topic of conversation was Canada’s response to climate change, and tied to this, the question of pipelines and Alberta’s oil patch. With nobody steering the national ship with respect to climate for the past decade, Canada now has a peculiarly diverse set of climate policies from province to province. This is well summarized in a recent report from McCarthy Tetrault LLC.

With the exception of Yukon and Nunavut, all Provinces and Territories have established quantitative emissions reductions targets, and are taking some government actions to help meet them. The targets vary widely, in target dates, base date used for comparison, and extent of reduction.

Provincial climate goals

While all jurisdictions with emissions targets have government actions in place or planned to help meet them, some jurisdictions have gone beyond ‘encouragement’ to ensure that the private sector will also play its part in emissions reductions. The pattern and extent of such efforts also vary. British Columbia has had a carbon tax since 2008. It is broad-based and paid at time of purchase of fuels – gasoline, natural gas, propane, jet fuel, and diesel. It is revenue neutral, and relatively broadly based (there are agricultural and rural tax credits to compensate certain classes of user). It started at $10 per tonne CO2 equivalent, and was incremented annually until 2012 when it reached $30. It has been fixed since then.

Alberta has regulations for large (industrial) emitters that limit the amount of CO2eq emitted per year, require progressive reductions in annual emissions, and require payment into a climate change fund at $15 per tonne CO2eq for emissions exceeding the allowable amount. The NDP government has plans for broader-based and more stringent standards, but is going slow because of the current economic downturn in the energy sector.

Manitoba is committed to introduce a cap-and-trade program for large emitters at a future time.

Ontario has reduced GHG emissions via actions such as the Feed In Tariff (FIT) program which subsidizes the price paid for electricity fed into the grid from renewable sources, and by shutting down its last coal-fired power plant. This province is now in the process of introducing a cap-and-trade emissions program for major emitters, tied to the emissions market operating in Quebec and California. It will come into effect in 2017. Details of what is proposed are slowly trickling out – 102 major emitters have been issued free permits allowing them to continue emitting at current rates until 2020 when allowable limits will presumably be reduced. There will also be a new tax on gasoline of 4.3 cents per litre to bring transportation under the GHG reduction plan. Funds raised through the auction of emissions permits will be used to fund other green infrastructure investments. The Star has expressed concern about the way the program is being set up and implemented.

Quebec has had a cap-and-trade system for GHG emissions since 2013, sharing an emissions market with California. Businesses with emissions of more than 25000 tonnes CO2eq per year are subject to caps which, beginning in 2015, rachet down 1-2% each year. Revenue from auction of emissions permits is used to fund other green infrastructure investments. Initially only the industrial and electricity sectors were in the cap-and-trade system, however fossil fuel distributors were joined starting in 2015. The current emissions permit price is around $11 per tonne CO2eq.

While the Atlantic Provinces, and the three northern Territories are in various stages of developing or implementing climate change policies none have yet sought to use mechanisms that would influences the private sector to cut emissions.

What is painfully obvious to anyone who bothers to look at the details is that the efforts put in place by the Provinces, while laudable given the lack of Federal leadership over the past decade, are woefully inadequate if Canada is to meet its obligations to the international community. On paper, and announced at the Paris COP21 last December, Canada is committed to a 30% reduction from 2005 levels in GHG emissions by 2030. We already know that Canada’s commitment (put in place by the previous Harper government) is inadequate if Canada is to do its share on climate change. The various provincial commitments, if achieved, might reach Canada’s commitment, but they will not come close to what is needed if warming is to be kept under 2oC. Canada must substantially raise its commitment, and every part of Canada is going to have to do more, some a lot more.

Awareness of this fact was not apparent as the provincial premiers met with the Prime Minister last week. He came to the meeting speaking about the need for a national price on carbon, and was met by premiers wringing their hands and pleading for him to please go away and leave them to do it their way. Some claimed that they did not need the goad of a Federal price floor and were doing just fine with their existing, or soon to be implemented carbon taxes or cap-and-trade regimes. Others pleaded that now was not the right time to hit the oil and gas industry with added costs. (One wonders when it is ever the right time to ask the oil and gas sector to pay for the damage they are doing to the planet.)

The result of the conference was that Prime Minister and Premiers agreed to investigate carbon pricing. Mr. Trudeau is going to have to become slightly less sunny and impose a price floor, which rachets upwards through the years. He and the Premiers have got to recognize that what is needed is the virtual elimination of use of fossil fuels (or at least an end to the GHG emissions from fossil fuels) by 2050 or so. This is a big task, but not an insurmountable one, and it only gets easier as we move forward. In the meantime, let us celebrate the cap-and-trade and tax plans that are being put in place by our more forward-thinking provinces, while encouraging everyone to think of carbon prices in the $100 to $200 per tonne CO2eq range, rather than the wimpy $11, $15, $30 amounts being considered now.

Trudeau’s coming trip to Washington

The visit to Washington later this week will be an opportunity for Justin Trudeau to further burnish his climate change credentials. There are obviously limits to what can be accomplished, but I am hopeful that Trudeau and Obama may be able to do something unexpected that advances the battle to wrestle climate change to the ground.


trudeau-and-obama Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau and Obama, seen here at the APEC Summit late 2015 seem to like each other. There are more possibilities for good results this week than over the past few years.
Photo © Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press.

While Obama’s hands are tied by the recalcitrant congress, he has been pretty adept at using executive power, so he may be able to announce some new regulations on power plants or on methane emissions by the oil and gas sector. A common price on carbon across North America would be an excellent aspirational goal, but I doubt much beyond promises can be done this week. Todd Stern, a White House climate envoy has suggested that methane emissions could be one topic for agreement, and has also suggested that a statement from the two leaders regarding GHG emissions from the aviation sector may also be on the table. Aviation and international shipping together account for about 5% of global GHG emissions, and have been largely ignored at the Paris COP21. The US EPA began last July a procedure that could put in place emissions regulations for aircraft landing in the US, similar to the rules operating for European airports. Thus the stage has been set for something that would involve Canada and the US forming a common North American policy for this sector. Many in the aviation industry favor establishing a single, global carbon offsetting scheme, but maybe we get there step by step.

In any event, the visit commences in less than 24 hours and it will be interesting to see what Trudeau and Obama can accomplish. At minimum, it will be positive political news from the US – something that has been in short supply in recent days as the election process moves forward and downward to something that does not look very pretty at all.