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


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This is the last issue of What on Earth? for the year and, indeed, the decade. Thank you for reading and engaging with our newsletter in 2020. See you in 2021!

This week:

  • ‘2 lost decades’: Experts on the last 20 years of Canadian climate policy
  • Visualizing the carbon emissions reductions during COVID-19
  • A year-end interview with Canada’s climate minister, Jonathan Wilkinson

‘2 lost decades’: Experts weigh in on the last 20 years of Canadian climate policy

(Todd Korol/Reuters)

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.” 

Jade Prévost-Manuel

Reader feedback

After our article on living Christmas trees last week, many of you shared stories about your own experiences with them. 

Some of you have celebrated with the same tree for several years, including Goetz Schildt of North Vancouver. Once the trees get too big to move, he donates them to the local parks board. He suggested that the most recent tree, an Alberta spruce, be planted in Vancouver’s Princess Park. 

“We had gotten attached to that park because we had our 50th and 60th anniversary parties in that park,” he said. The parks board obliged. “Of course, it looks minute near all the other tall trees, but with some luck, it will grow,” Schildt said.

Nomi, who lives in the West Kootenays of B.C. and who has had many living trees over the years, offered a suggestion for caring for one. “Ice cube watering acts like drip irrigation [and] therefore waters the roots at a slower rate. Once ice cubes are out of the freezer, their outside surface is no longer freezing, so damage is not likely. We have used that technique for eight live trees with great success.”

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There’s also a radio show! This week, What on Earth features an interview with Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson. The conversation covers everything from lessons learned during the pandemic to his hope to hit net-zero emissions, plus some news he didn’t expect to break. Listen to What on Earth on CBC Radio One on Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland, or any time on podcast or CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: Visualizing emissions changes in 2020

In addition to being a serious health threat, the COVID-19 pandemic was a swift, sudden and widespread shock to the world economy in 2020. While many countries are battling a second — if not third — wave of the novel coronavirus, the biggest disruptions to business-as-usual came in the first half of the year. We know that the shutdowns related to the pandemic had a significant impact on year-over-year carbon emissions (dropping as much as 17 per cent in April). But new data from the Global Carbon Project illustrates the emissions changes by sector between January and May, with surface transportation seeing the biggest drop (7.5 per cent in April), while residential emissions ever so slightly rose.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • The holiday season is in many ways one long shopping spree, but at what point did people become known as “consumers?” That’s the central question in this fascinating essay in Grist, which looks at how the English language became so focused on materialism. One commentator in the piece says that consumerism relies on a narrative that we are “innately selfish, and that economic growth is good, no matter if it makes people better off or damages the environment.”

  • A project to build a new pedestrian area in downtown Oslo, Norway, could be a model for greening the construction industry, which is estimated to account for more than 23 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. In electrifying almost all aspects of the project — from the diggers to the saws — the initiative offers a holistic approach to making construction nearly emissions-free.

A year-end interview with Canada’s climate minister

(Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Earlier this year, there was concern the climate agenda would be sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic. But in the last couple of months, Canada’s minister of environment and climate change, Jonathan Wilkinson, has tabled net-zero legislation, outlined an ambitious plan to exceed 2030 emissions reduction targets, helped announce Canada’s hydrogen strategy and is soon expected to outline plans for a clean fuel standard. 

What On Earth27:01A year-end interview with Canada’s climate minister

From lessons learned during the pandemic to his hope to hit net-zero emissions, plus some news he didn’t expect to break – Jonathan Wilkinson joins us for a feature interview. 27:01

Wilkinson spoke to CBC Radio’s What On Earth about what his government has accomplished so far and outlined a few things he’s got his eyes on for 2021. 

Q: You’ve made some significant climate-related announcements recently. Given the effect of transportation on emissions, why not also announce a zero-emission vehicle standard to ban the sale of gas-powered vehicles by 2030? 

A: Well, there are countries in the world that have put that kind of a ban in place, although most of them are a little later than 2030, and certainly I wouldn’t rule [out] a zero-emission vehicle supply mandate, which exists in a number of jurisdictions, including California, where you are requiring automakers to have a certain proportion of zero-emission vehicles available for sale. 

I wouldn’t rule that off the table by any stretch, and I wouldn’t necessarily rule a ban [of internal combustion engine vehicles] off the table. But, you know, this is one of the opportunities that the election of [U.S.] president-elect [Joe] Biden opens up for Canada. We have a very integrated auto market. Parts go back and forth between the two countries all the time. This is an opportunity to work together on a North American solution with respect to how we’re going to phase out the use of internal combustion engines. 

Q: The government has indicated a willingness to consider imposing tariffs on imports from higher-emitting countries, which is what the European Union is doing. But Ottawa has stopped short of moving ahead on it. Why? 

A: Well, the idea is called a border carbon adjustment, and the idea is an interesting one. Europe is ahead of everybody on this. They’re trying to develop a system to implement border carbon adjustments. It is very complicated, as they have found in trying to implement it. We would obviously need to do that in lockstep with the Americans, just given the integrated nature of our economy. 

But it is certainly something that we are very interested in. It is not only a way in which to ensure that you are providing protection with respect to carbon content of goods coming from outside. But I see it actually as an enabler to [incentivize] stronger climate action on the part of some countries where they have not yet done the push to net-zero. 

Q: A few days ago, you took part in a Zoom meeting with a group of young people who expressed their very passionate concerns about climate change, including the government’s ownership of the Trans Mountain pipeline. You told them that you’re forming an advisory council of young people, while the government still firmly supports oil and gas development. How can they be assured you will act on their advice?

A: I said I hadn’t said this publicly before, so, yeah, I’m actually making this announcement via podcast, which wasn’t actually my intent. But [the announcement] is that we would be setting up an advisory group, a youth group, that would provide advice to me. 

I think it’s entirely appropriate, and ensures that youth voices will be heard in the context of the work that I need to do. I mean, at the end of the day, it is young people who are going to have to live with either action or inaction on the part of governments around the world with respect to climate change. It is they that are going to inherit the economy that we either choose to build or we put our head in the sand and do not. 

Manusha Janakiram

This interview has been edited and condensed. For the full interview, listen to What on Earth on CBC Radio One on Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m in Newfoundland, or any time on podcast or CBC Listen.

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty



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