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Justin Trudeau’s smoke and mirrors climate policy

Trudeau presented himself as a climate leader at COP26, but he’s nothing of the sort

Canadian PoliticsEnvironment

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault hold a press conference at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland on November 2, 2021. Photo from Twitter.

In November 2015, at the peak of the post-Harper honeymoon, Justin Trudeau jetted off to the Paris climate conference. “Canada is back, my friends,” he told the assembled world leaders. “We’re here to help.”

Under the Liberals, Trudeau promised, Canada would finally start pulling its weight in the fight against climate change, following almost ten years of inaction under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and little better under the Chrétien-Martin Liberals that preceded him. The young, self-proclaimed feminist prime minister wouldn’t repeat those mistakes. His government would pursue a bold, progressive agenda at home and abroad, and that meant taking the climate crisis seriously.

Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna became one of the leaders pushing to change the warming target from the previously agreed upon 2º to the more ambitious 1.5º that small island states and other countries most at risk from rising seas and changing weather patterns said was essential to their survival. It was the Liberals’ way of showing their ambition, even as they lacked emissions-reductions targets and a real plan of their own. It would come, they promised, but what they did in the years that followed failed to live up to the expectations they set for themselves.

It’s important to look back on this moment because the Trudeau Liberals are following a similar playbook today. Following a disappointing election result, they want to try to revive some of the spirit of 2015 and show they can get things done. After the prime minister appointed Steven Guilbeault as environment minister, the media played up his activist past to suggest this was the guy to finally make the policy match the rhetoric. Then they flew to Glasgow for the latest global climate conference, known as COP26, where Trudeau presented himself as a climate leader even as the past six years have shown he’s nothing of the sort, and that’s unlikely to change.

The Liberals’ disappointing record

Almost a year after the bold commitments made by Trudeau and McKenna in Paris, it was time to admit that the government wasn’t so ambitious after all. Despite the Liberals having frequently criticized the Harper government’s emissions-reduction targets while in opposition, McKenna acknowledged that the Liberals were adopting them as its own.

Carbon pricing very quickly became the centrepiece of the Liberals’ climate strategy, but even that didn’t live up to expectations. There were big promises about how it was the most efficient way to reduce emissions, yet that overlooked the politics of such a market-based policy. Carbon taxes had been endorsed by polluting industries, most notably the oil companies, because they wouldn’t set a limit on their emissions—they would simply make them pay a bit for the right to continue doing so.

For a policy that was supposed to be efficient, the government also went about implementing it in the most convoluted way possible. Seeking to show it was collaborative with provinces, the Liberals didn’t simply pass a national carbon tax and call it a day. When the scheme finally took effect in April 2019 near the end of the government’s first mandate, most provinces and territories had a grab bag of different measures that included cap-and-trade systems, carbon taxes, and fuel surcharges, while only a few accepted the federal “backstop” plan. It was a mess, and their other policies weren’t much better.

Despite coming to power in 2015 with a promise to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, the Liberals did no such thing. In fact, government support for the industry surged during the pandemic, with Canada’s per-capita fossil fuel subsidies being the highest of any G20 country other than China. As part of that industry support, the government nationalized the Trans Mountain pipeline in 2018 to ensure it gets built so Alberta can keep exporting some of the dirtiest oil in the world. The cost of that project has since soared to at least $12.6 billion.

Over their six years in office, the Liberals have not been successful at putting a dent in Canada’s emissions. The government is not on track to meet its 2030 climate targets and Canadians remain among the highest per-capita emitters in the world—notably higher than European countries and far above China. It hasn’t taken on the oil industry, isn’t addressing the sales of large trucks and SUVs that are increasing transport emissions, and is relying overwhelmingly on market-oriented measures that seek to use price signals to nudge companies and individuals to make greener choices. Not only is it not good enough, but we should be skeptical as the Liberals try, once again, to take on the mantle of climate champions.

Despite coming to power in 2015 with a promise to to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, the Liberals did no such thing. Canada’s per-capita fossil fuel subsidies are now the highest of any G20 country other than China. Photo by Todd Korol/The Narwhal.

Misleading the public on climate action

During the election, the Liberals trotted out energy economist Mark Jaccard and former BC Greens leader Andrew Weaver to praise its climate plan as the most ambitious of any party. In truth, that was never the case, it was simply the plan that aligned most with their view of how the challenge should be addressed—through market-oriented policies that don’t challenge the fundamentals of capitalism.

If anyone doubted that, Weaver declared ahead of COP26 that not only was limited warming to 1.5º “not attainable,” but “it never has been.” The first part of that statement could simply be seen as a realist assessment of the state of affairs as countries around the world, including the Canadian government he’d been praising weeks earlier, are not doing enough to address the climate crisis. But it’s the second part that shows how his belief in what’s possible has been curtailed by four decades of neoliberalism—and Canadian climate policy suffers from the same problem.

Polling shows that the public is frustrated with the constant delays and lack of real action taken by the Liberals. It’s exactly why the government is now saying they’re about to take more ambitious measures, but it’s not clear even those will rise to the level of what’s necessary.

At COP26, Trudeau called for a global carbon tax while reiterating his commitment to cap oil and gas emissions. But the industry isn’t likely to take that easily, as it pushes unproven technologies like carbon capture, plans to rely on carbon offsets, and tries to ensure its scope three emissions (those that are released when oil and gas are burned for electricity or transport) are not counted. The details of the government’s plan have not been announced, leaving room for the carveouts that we’ve become used to.

For example, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson committed that Canada will stop financing fossil fuel projects abroad, but there’s a big loophole that exempts projects with some form of carbon capture. The government also signed onto an agreement to halt deforestation, despite the RCMP’s recent violent clearing of protestors trying to stop old-growth logging in the Fairy Creek watershed, and while Canada is getting off thermal coal, the government still hasn’t banned its export so those emissions are still being created elsewhere. Sadly, this is characteristic of how the Liberals are approaching the issue.

The market won’t save us

Justin Trudeau’s climate policy uses the smoke and mirrors of market mechanisms to make it seem as though his government is taking action. But those measures build in the means for companies and sectors to avoid doing the hard work of changing their practices or, as in the case of the oil industry, beginning to wind down their operations.

The current proposal for net-zero by 2050 relies on technologies that don’t exist to delay the hard work once again. Carbon capture will help to achieve negative emissions in the future, but it’s failed to live up to its expectations and is used as a justification to avoid the necessary phaseout of fossil fuels. Similarly, carbon offsets allow companies to pay for emissions reductions elsewhere instead of taking the difficult and necessary action at their own facilities.

The government could be implementing ambitious measures to transform sectors of the economy, as Ontario did in 2003 when it phased out coal and significantly reduced its emissions. Yet the Liberals prefer a more hands-off approach that aligns with the neoliberal model of governance and will not deliver the structural changes we need to seriously meet the scale of the challenge that faces us.

The Liberals will tax carbon, but still haven’t eliminated fossil fuel subsidies and won’t even talk about phasing out fossil fuel production. They’ll incentivize a shift to electric cars, but won’t do nearly enough to expand more sustainable means of transport while promoting the mining boom that will be necessary to make EV batteries. They’ll ban “single-use plastics,” but will ignore all the unnecessary plastic used in product packaging at grocery stores and other retailers. And those are just a few examples.

If we’ve learned anything over these past six years, it’s that Trudeau and his team are great at crafting their image, but rarely deliver the substance to back it up. As we see the government trying to greenwash itself once again, we should think back to 2015 and demand a climate policy that gets to the root of the problem. That doesn’t mean trying to spur private companies to do the bare minimum after actively stifling action for decades, but taking on the capitalist structures that created the problem in the first place.

Paris Marx is the host of the Tech Won’t Save Us podcast and author of Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong about the Future of Transportation, coming in 2022 from Verso Books. Follow Paris on Twitter @parismarx.

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