The Biden presidency could change the terms of the climate debate in Canada


The significance of this year’s presidential election for U.S. climate policy came down to a basic difference between the two rivals. One candidate accepted the reality of climate change and wanted to do something about it. The other denied the threat and actively reversed attempts to combat it.

So Joe Biden’s victory is of no small consequence.

“It’s been a long, tough slog these past four years internationally on climate action,” Infrastructure Minister Catherine McKenna, the former environment minister, tweeted on Saturday night after Biden’s win had been called by the major American television networks. “It will make a big difference to have the U.S. back in the #ParisAgreement, joining Canada & like-minded countries pushing hard for ambitious climate action.”

Biden’s ambitions may be limited by the U.S. Senate, which is likely to remain in Republican control. But the White House’s re-engagement with the fight against climate change is bound to have ramifications for Canada and the world — perhaps even across the Canadian political spectrum.

“Having America (especially with its economic heft) ‘back’ in the global climate fight could help to increase the drive to increased ambition [and] climate solutions,” Sarah Petrevan, policy director for Clean Energy Canada, said in an email last week. “While the [European Union] is a global leader … the fact is, having that ambition closer to home … will be essential for Canada and increased action [and] ambition.”

Under Biden, the United States’ will rejoin the Paris agreement on climate change and the U.S. will become the latest country to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050. Biden also has promised that climate change will be a major component of his foreign policy — an area where the American president has relatively free rein.

Something short of a ‘green new deal’

Domestically, Biden’s power is more limited. As the Democratic candidate, the backbone of his climate plan was a promise to spend $2 trillion over the next four years to reduce emissions and speed up his country’s transition to a clean economy. But Republican senators are rather unlikely to sign off on the complete implementation of the Biden platform.

“The campaign in the United States created kind of a bogeyman out of the Green New Deal and we expect that the Republicans will exploit that at every opportunity,” Mikaela McQuade, a Washington-based analyst with Eurasia Group (who previously worked for both McKenna and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers), said last week.

McQuade said Biden might still find Republican support for carbon capture utilization and storage, tax credits for wind and solar energy, building electric vehicle infrastructure and developing hydrogen as a fuel source. He can also use executive authority to develop and implement regulations — something Barack Obama did a lot of during his presidency.

Some of those moves could have direct impacts on Canadian policy. Biden has promised, for instance, new regulations for methane emissions — which could either match Canada’s current standards or put pressure on Justin Trudeau’s government to move more aggressively. McQuade suggests Biden is also likely to grant California a waiver to proceed with its own vehicle emissions standards, which would clear the way for Canada to align its standards with the Golden State.

Dan Woynillowicz, a climate policy consultant in British Columbia, points out that Biden also could make changes to financial regulation to boost climate risk disclosure. That, he said, could “really begin to reshape markets and capital flows and consideration of risk that, in some senses, is just as important as what he might be able to do … with spending.”

And as Sarah Hastings-Simon and Rachel Samson argued in a recent post for the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, American movement toward clean growth would increase the incentive for Canada to keep pace.

Keystone XL’s second death

But Biden also has promised to rescind the permit that Donald Trump issued for the Keystone XL pipeline — another flashpoint in the debate over energy and the environment in this country.

Officials from Ottawa and Alberta can make the case that Canadian climate policies have improved significantly since Obama first refused to authorize the project in 2015. But such assurances would have to compete with the pressure that Biden will feel from American activists and members of his own party.

“With many specific climate proposals facing dilution and delay by a Republican Senate, rescinding KXL would be one area the Biden administration could act and deliver a win to a key political constituency with no Congressional interference,” McQuade wrote in a note for Eurasia Group last week.

The second demise of Keystone XL would put new pressure on the Trudeau government to account for the future of Canada’s oil and gas industry. But American action on climate change also would increase pressure on Trudeau’s Liberals to fulfil their own promises — and perhaps even move faster.

“Politically speaking, Biden’s election, even with a divided government, would likely strengthen the [Liberal] government’s resolve on climate change,” McQuade said. “I think that’s especially true when you consider Canadian [public] attention is really only captured by the presidency. And if the message from the White House is climate leadership, that will resonate.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama. Obama’s failure to implement a cap-and-trade system coincided with the Conservative party’s growing opposition to climate policies such as carbon taxation. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Could a Biden presidency also help nudge Erin O’Toole and the Conservative party toward embracing more robust climate action?

Twelve years ago, the Conservatives greeted Obama’s election as an opportunity to make progress on climate change. “I’m quite optimistic that we now have a partner on the North American continent that will provide leadership to the world on the climate change issue,” Stephen Harper said in February 2009, shortly after his first meeting with Obama.

Those early years of the Obama era coincided with the Conservative party’s last serious flirtation with implementing a price on carbon. At the time, the Harper government’s stated goal was a continental cap-and-trade system.

But Obama’s cap-and-trade legislation stalled in the U.S. Senate and the Harper government lost interest. By 2011, the Conservatives were attacking an NDP proposal for cap-and-trade with the same venom they had used previously to condemn former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s plan for a carbon tax.

The Conservative party became the primary source of opposition to any plans to act on climate change and former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer was unwilling or unable to walk his party out of that corner.

Biden’s election might make it just a little harder to argue against action now. “I think it makes things more challenging for O’Toole and the Conservatives because they can no longer point to the U.S. as being that neighbour who’s not moving,” Woynillowicz said.

If Joe Biden wins the U.S. presidential election, Canadians could feel the impact in areas like energy, trade and defence. 6:42

Conversely, American action on clean energy and innovation — and the jobs that would come with it — could give O’Toole something he can point to in order to convince his supporters to move past the talking points of the Harper era.

Not even Trump’s denial was enough to completely stall all movement toward reducing emissions and transitioning the global economy. And even if everything in American politics is harder than it should be, a president committed to re-engaging with the climate crisis will only add to the political, economic and environmental momentum that continues to build.

What do you want to know about the U.S. election? Email us at [email protected].