OTTAWA — Canada’s environment watchdog says the department in charge of the country’s climate change agenda does not have the clout to drive the transition to a low-carbon economy.
“There has been a history of failure, followed by failure, followed by failure,” Environment and Sustainable Development Commissioner Jerry DeMarco told reporters Thursday. “And that can’t continue. Because if that continues, we just get worse climate change.”
The commissioner’s office tabled five reports in the House of Commons, including one he explicitly described as a “lessons learned” review of Canada’s “30 years of missed opportunities” on climate action.
“Many federal government organizations have an increasing number of responsibilities related to climate change, which creates complications at the national level,” the report warned.
Environment and Climate Change Canada is a federal department, but not a central agency, a distinction flagged by DeMarco’s office that means it “cannot compel other federal organizations to undertake work related to climate change under their respective mandates.”
The report included advice gathered from consultations that suggests stronger leadership from the finance department and Privy Council Office could help drive efficacious climate policies.
The status quo risks an “uncoordinated” approach among federal government entities and threatens to introduce “potentially competing mandates and responsibilities that can lead to policies and decisions that can appear to be at cross-purposes.”
DeMarco’s office used the federal Liberal government’s C$4.5 billion purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline in 2018 as an example of “policy incoherence,” making both a “direct and significant investment in fossil fuel infrastructure while trying to position itself as a global leader on climate action.”
Cost estimates associated with the pipeline’s planned expansion have ballooned to C$12.6 billion, according to the parliamentary budget officer.
“I’m still optimistic that Canada’s performance can be turned around,” DeMarco said.
The Liberal government shuffled Jonathan Wilkinson to natural resources from the environment department last month in a bid to improve cohesion. The departments have historically butted heads with sometimes clashing mandates.
Asked by POLITICO what more departments can do to expedite climate action, DeMarco acknowledged a priority on leadership and added, “They could also focus on the lesson about actually achieving targets and not just making them.”
Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and Wilkinson released a joint statement responding to the watchdog reports. The findings “reinforce what we already know: The job isn’t finished, and there is more we must do to mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts,” they said.
The commissioner’s report stated how “Canada has gone from being a climate leader to falling behind other developed countries despite recent efforts.” It identified the country as the worst-performing G-7 nation on greenhouse gas emissions since the Paris Agreement’s adoption in 2015.
Key findings: The report identified eight lessons to improve policy and climate action progress. Number one was the need for stronger leadership and better intergovernmental coordination if Canada is to shed its reputation as a laggard on emissions reduction.
The report also warned governments that “heavily rely on fossil fuels as sources of revenue” face long-term financial risks if they don’t diminish their reliance on oil and gas. The advice is relevant to Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador, responsible for 97 percent of domestic crude oil production. For natural gas and natural gas liquids, Alberta and British Columbia are responsible for 97 percent of Canadian production.
Key quotes: Canada has had nine climate plans during the past 31 years, DeMarco told reporters, “And none of them have achieved the objectives.” He warned that having a plan isn’t satisfactory. “We need to have results.”
Asked if Canada’s ambitions to reach net-zero emission by 2050 are realistic, DeMarco said yes, though the country isn’t close to achieving it this year. “We first started getting serious about climate change in 1990. Our emissions are now 20-21 percent higher than when we started … But there is time to reach net zero. I don’t advocate waiting until New Year’s Eve in 2049 to get working on that.”
— From the report: “Canada’s climate goals cannot be met without taking the oil and gas industry into account, but the debate about fossil fuel development risks both partisan and regional division,” authors wrote. “Experts that we interviewed told us that Canada needs to depolarize the climate change discussion to move the debate from whether the country should significantly reduce its emissions and toward a discussion on how emissions should be reduced.”
The impact: The report also stressed how climate-related infrastructure failures risk putting Canadians in danger. Severe flooding across British Columbia provides a recent example of how important dike management, and clarity on who is responsible for their maintenance, is in flood mitigation to prepare for extreme weather conditions.
Background: Canada agreed to the Paris Agreement in 2015 and ratified it the following year. A ratchet mechanism in the agreement requires countries to increase their climate goals, called Nationally Determined Contributions, every five years.
Earlier this year, Canada increased its emissions-reduction target to 40 to 45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The country has also committed to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.
Canada is a major oil-producing country. It is the fourth-largest producer and exporter of oil in the world. The environment watchdog’s report noted about 53 percent of oil produced in Canada in 2019 was exported and burned elsewhere.
Scaling low-emitting sources of energy will be a challenge for Canadian governments, on all levels, given major infrastructure challenges that includes setting up charging stations for electric vehicles and integrating electricity grids across the country.
The commissioner noted Canada’s advantage in the energy transition era with “an abundance of energy resources, including crude oil, coal, natural gas, uranium, the highest tides in the world and space for hydroelectric dams and wind and solar farms.”
What’s next: The environment commissioner is scheduled to present a report to Parliament in 2022 auditing Canada’s just transition for coal workers. Pressure is also on the government to reform its fossil fuel subsidies in favor of reallocating aid to workers over industries.
The Liberals campaigned in 2019 to introduce just transition legislation to mitigate any adverse impacts to fossil fuel sector workers during the country’s transition to a low-carbon economy. The Liberals promised to put together an advisory body to guide the way.
Discussion and debate around climate action is expected to continue to be polarized in Canada with opposition Conservatives arguing tougher policies that risk hurting the oil and gas sector to be ideology-driven by governing Liberals.
A provision in the new net-zero legislation passed in June requires the government to table a plan for how Canada can reach its 2030 climate target by Dec. 29. But the law also gives the environment minister the option of a 90-day extension.
Guilbeault did not confirm if he plans to delay the release of the plan to March. “We will be communicating that decision very soon,” he said Thursday. Wilkinson joined Guilbeault to speak with the media about the reports. Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland was not in attendance.