Climate change has been on Canada’s political agenda since 1988, when we hosted the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere and joined the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That was thirty-five years ago: the professional lifespan of a whole generation of politicians and public servants and long enough, one would think, for serious action.
Canada did ratify the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the Copenhagen Accord in 2009, and the Paris Agreement in 2015. At Kyoto, we committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 6 percent below 1990 levels by 2012; at Copenhagen, we set a target of emissions 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. We never came close to either goal. At Paris, we committed to emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030; in 2021, we revised that upward to a targeted reduction of 40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Nonetheless, the Climate Action Tracker currently rates Canada’s performance as “highly insufficient,” on par with those of Saudi Arabia and China. Our emissions in 2012, the year after the Harper government withdrew from Kyoto, were around 20 percent above 1990 levels. And though Ottawa’s latest emissions target seems heroic by comparison, we have only seven years left to achieve it.
Globally, the situation is dire. With its aim to limit human-induced global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the Paris Agreement was seen as a breakthrough by many. But warming is already at 1.1 degrees, causing extreme weather events and other impacts on people and ecosystems. Even small additional increases could set off dangerous tipping points in the climate system. The IPCC’s latest projection is that, failing dramatic action, warming could reach or surpass 1.5 degrees in the coming decade. Concretely, this forecast means that, relative to 2019, the world must reduce emissions by some 40 percent by 2030 and some 70 percent by 2040. The hard truth is that Canada’s new target, heroic as it may appear, is really the bare minimum.
In Picking Up the Slack, Andrew Green sets out to understand why Canada’s action has been so inadequate to date and what might be done to improve it. An environmental law professor at the University of Toronto, he recognizes that climate change policy is a “super-wicked problem” for Canada, especially given the importance and regional concentration of the petroleum industry. Alberta and Saskatchewan have per capita greenhouse gas emissions four to six times greater than those of other jurisdictions. While emissions have been flat or trending downward in seven provinces, they have been rising slightly in British Columbia and Saskatchewan and still quite dramatically in Alberta. Clearly the wickedest part of our super-wicked problem is how to deal with the petroleum industry.
There is no ideal way to divvy up emissions cuts. Green shows that different principles of sharing would result in different relative burdens: Alberta and Saskatchewan would bear especially high ones if the criterion is that reductions should be proportionate to each province’s share of emissions, for example, or if the yardstick is least-cost efficiency. Their burdens would be much lower if the sharing principle is equal reductions per capita. Green also reviews the distributional impacts of various criteria on industries and workers. He is critical of provincial and federal governments for doing little to come to a shared understanding on percentages, while Ottawa “continues to make plans at times seemingly unilaterally,” taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s strengthening of its authority to make climate change policy.
While Green provides an excellent review of the challenges at the core of climate policy, his argument that “the issue is less a ‘climate change’ problem than a governance problem” is not entirely persuasive. We can agree that, historically, Canada built its laws and institutions around exploiting resources to the detriment of the environment and that our leaders — federal and provincial — too often passed the buck. But Green has a particular concern with what he sees as excessive discretion in our environmental laws, which permits weak implementation as politicians and regulators do deals with special interests. With this perspective, his three major conclusions are focused on governance rather than on specific policies. First, “we need to reduce opposition to change,” by developing an approach to a “just transition,” by adjusting our transfer programs to provinces to share the costs of reducing emissions, and by helping affected industries. Second, “we need to build trust to support better decisions” with more intergovernmental cooperation and federal support, so that provinces do not feel they are being taken advantage of. Building trust also requires more room for expertise, better mechanisms of political accountability, and a stronger role for the courts in asking governments to justify their decisions. Finally, “we need to strengthen interests that push for change,” such as the industries of the green economy, which can become a counter to the heavy-emitting alternatives.
At one level, these steps all seem attractive and sensible. But a weakness in Green’s approach is that he seems to take the politics out of government. With clashing views and objectives, political parties play to different publics and bases. Green recognizes that the Harper government did very little to address climate change, but he understates the partisan differences on the issue. In marked contrast to the Harper position, the Trudeau government has made climate change a high priority, with ambitious targets and a panoply of regulations and big spending programs. Yet given how highly self-interested “fairness” can be, seeking a broad political consensus may be a will-o’-the-wisp. A federal government that seeks to lead on climate change, then, should engage the provinces and consult with the public as it develops its policies and approach to burden sharing. If it fails to bring some premiers around, it can still work to sell its approach to a broad swath of the population.
The federal Liberals find it much easier to reach agreements with provincial Liberal and New Democratic governments than with Conservative ones, especially those on the prairies. As an NDP premier in Alberta, Rachel Notley signed on to the Trudeau government’s Pan-Canadian Framework, and she still supports the carbon tax. By contrast, the United Conservative Party’s Danielle Smith, who claims the oil sands “represent the safest and cleanest fossil fuel extraction in the world,” has launched a full assault on Ottawa’s authority to regulate emissions, using fervid rhetoric against the carbon tax. Even so, her government agreed in late 2022 to strengthen Alberta’s industrial pricing regime for carbon; it did so to avoid the intervention of the federal backstop system. Evidently cooperation can happen in different ways — ideally because of shared values and interests but sometimes through duress. Such duress can even provide political cover for provinces, allowing them to say they were forced to take unwelcome measures but protected their interests as much as possible.
The time lag from manuscript to publication means a public policy book’s argument can be overtaken by events. Read today, Picking Up the Slack suffers in this regard. Green managed to note the Trudeau government’s 2021 emissions target, but his analysis and laments about lack of ambition are based heavily on the earlier goal of a 20 percent reduction. A stream of other announcements have been made since Green completed his draft.
After the Trudeau government unveiled its major initiatives, Joe Biden’s administration announced an unprecedented climate change package of its own, which combines $369 billion (U.S.) in spending with new regulatory measures. The United States is again supporting the Paris Agreement and has made its target a 50 to 52 percent emissions reduction by 2030, relative to 2005 levels. Many analysts suggest that these figures may well be achieved. Washington’s current approach blends climate policy, tech policy, and security policy, along with geopolitical and economic competition with China. In strong contrast with Canada and the European Union, it does not include a price on carbon. The entire program is based on regulated standards and on subsidies for emissions reductions and clean energy. Forgoing carbon pricing — a tool that has often been a very tough sell — could be a real game changer for climate policy internationally.
The Trudeau government responded in its most recent budget, with almost $21 billion in tax incentives for clean energy investments. It remains to be seen whether there will be adjustments to carbon pricing here. The current minimum national price of $65 per tonne of GHG emissions is scheduled to rise progressively to $170 a tonne by 2030. Is that economically or politically sustainable if the U.S. has no federal carbon price, even if some individual states do?
Climate change policy is inevitably controversial and subject to surprising developments, reversals, and bumps in the road. No pundit thirty years ago would have predicted how quickly the world is adopting wind and solar power as well as electric vehicles. We’ve also been surprised by the ferocity of extreme weather events and the rate of warming in the Arctic — both very negative developments but also major contributors to increasing public appreciation of the urgency of the challenge.
While public policy responses have become much stronger, especially in the Western democracies, they still fall well short of the $4-trillion annual investment that experts say is necessary on a global scale. In light of the stakes, serious thinkers are advocating measures that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. Sir David King at Cambridge has proposed “refreezing the Arctic” with a huge array of misting machines, which would create cloud cover across the region each summer and slow down polar melting. Even more radically, David Keith at Harvard has argued that we may soon need to consider solar geo-engineering: injecting reflective particles into the upper atmosphere as part of a “brutally ugly technical fix.”
Green’s book certainly conveys the need for urgency, and it provides a good overview of the challenges of climate policy for Canada. However, his focus on the weaknesses in governance in our system is less persuasive than the emphasis that Mark Jaccard of Simon Fraser University put on political leadership several years ago, with The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success. While the recent significant steps on climate policy in North America are encouraging, they remain fragile and insufficient. They are also potentially prey to political backlash. Green is certainly right about the critical need to bring the public along.