‘2 lost decades’: How some experts view last 20 years of Canadian climate policy

While 2020 has felt long, for environmental activists in Canada, the wait for a federal climate change strategy has felt much longer. 

After teasing a plan for years, the Trudeau government unveiled a comprehensive climate change strategy last Friday, outlining the steps Canada needs to take to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. They include a steadily rising carbon tax, investment in hydrogen fuel and government grants for homeowners for energy retrofits.  

Yet Alan MacEachern, a climate change historian and professor of history at Western University in London, Ont., says that it has taken too long for the federal government to come up with the necessary ambition to tackle climate change. 

In the last 20 years — which saw the leadership of Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien, Conservative Stephen Harper and now Justin Trudeau — the federal government committed to phasing out coal-fired electricity and made significant investments in renewable energy, like wind and solar, which now account for 16 per cent of Canada’s total primary energy supply. 

But MacEachern said it’s hard not to see this as “two lost decades.”

“The country had 10 years, sliced right through the middle of this 20-year block, in which the federal government was never committed to mitigating climate change, was maybe never sure if climate change was real,” MacEachern said. “The Trudeau government has been an improvement on Harper’s, but it could hardly not be.”

Under Harper, Canada legislated regulations for better fuel economy in new cars but it also withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol, a precursor to the Paris Accord that aimed to reduce global carbon emissions below 1990 levels.

While the Trudeau government has made stronger commitments to climate action, it hasn’t achieved the momentum needed to make Canada a front-runner in reducing emissions, said David Boyd, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment.

“We should have started in earnest three decades ago, but we’re really only gearing up now,” said Boyd, who is also an associate professor of law, policy and sustainability at the University of British Columbia.

MacEachern said that three or four decades ago, Canada was making more significant progress. The country spearheaded the 1987 Montreal Protocol, a global agreement to protect the ozone layer by phasing out ozone-depleting substances — to date, the only UN treaty to have been adopted by every country on Earth. In the early 1990s, the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney also made gains on tackling acid rain.

Since 2000, Canada’s population has increased by about seven million. While greenhouse gas emissions are now about the same as they were at the turn of the millennium, Canada is warming at double the global rate. 

MacEachern said Canadians haven’t treated climate change with the urgency it deserves — and that includes the Trudeau government.

“Canada has just about the highest per-capita energy use and greenhouse gas emissions on the planet,” MacEachern said. “We need to turn this tanker around as quickly as possible, and move to a low-emissions economy.”

In 2015, Canada signed on to the Paris Agreement to limit global average temperature rise to well below 2 C above pre-industrial levels. Last year, the Trudeau government declared a national climate emergency in Canada, acknowledging human-driven climate change as a real and urgent crisis that required a national commitment. 

While measures proposed in the Liberals’ climate change plan, such as a gradual carbon tax hike to $170 per tonne by 2030, are a good start, they aren’t in line with science, said Marina Melanidis, founder of Youth4Nature, which advocates for ambitious environmental action.

She said scientists recommend a 45 per cent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, while Canada only plans to reduce emissions by 32 to 40 per cent below 2005 levels in that period.

“We don’t have enough time to be taking steps anymore,” said Melanidis. “We have to be leaping forward and making significant changes towards this rapid transition that we need.”

Even so, Boyd sees promise in Canada’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which indicates how quickly and effectively the country can mobilize against a pressing threat. 

“The government did everything necessary to respond to the crisis and businesses developed vaccines in record time,” said Boyd. “To me, this raises expectations that we can actually implement the changes scientists tell us are needed to address the climate emergency.” 

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