How Can Canada Take Accountability for Its Role in the Climate Crisis?
“That means dramatically increasing the amount of climate finance that we send abroad.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced plans to cut the country's greenhouse gas emissions by up to 45% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels at the US Leaders Summit on Climate on Thursday.
The commitment is a significant increase from past pledges and will require massive investments to overhaul all economic sectors. The country may go even further in the months ahead as the UN climate conference approaches in November.
This Earth Day, climate action is in the air as countries look to align their policies with the Paris climate agreement’s goal of keeping temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Canada recently got a boost in this effort when the Supreme Court upheld its carbon tax.
But the country is still far from being a climate leader. In fact, its policies could contribute to up to 3 degrees of warming, which would unleash catastrophic consequences, according to the Climate Action Tracker.
Global Citizen asked Catherine Abreu, the executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, about Canada’s pursuit of net-zero emissions, the recent Supreme Court decision, climate adaptation funding, and what we can expect from Canada going forward.
Global Citizen: Canada has committed to reach 'net zero' greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and aims to pass a law that would maintain that goal for future Canadian governments. Can you talk about what net zero means, and what it will take to get there?
Catherine Abreu: The most important part of the phrase “net zero" is the word zero. Getting to net-zero means that we are driving emissions down to as close to zero as we possibly can. While we work hard to drive towards zero emissions in our energy systems, our building systems, and our transportation systems, there will still be sources of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that we will have to mitigate somehow when we get to mid-century.
That’s where the “net” comes in. After we’ve done everything we can to get as close to zero as possible, we will need to offset those impossible-to-eliminate sources of emissions by investing in carbon sequestration.The greatest potential for growing our capacity to sequester carbon is to restore natural ecosystems and transform agricultural practices. It is more than possible to ensure farmers are part of the climate solution, rather than agriculture remaining a major source of global emissions as it is today. And of course restoring ecosystems has the added bonus of addressing the twin ecological crisis to climate change: biodiversity loss.
There are some technologies that are potentially part of the net-zero picture, but technological fixes should come well after investments in nature-based solutions. We have all of the technology we need today to drive emissions down over the next decade and get on track to zero. Carbon sequestration technologies are still in development; even where they exist and work right now they are not operating yet at scale. So we need to resist being wooed by the silver-bullet technocratic vision that is easy for folks to get distracted by in the net-zero space. Instead, we should be focused on immediate, ambitious action to reduce emissions and restore ecosystems.
You called the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision on Canada's carbon pricing a "love letter to the planet." What do you think this decision means for climate action globally?
I called that Supreme Court decision a love letter to the planet because of the really strong language that we got in the decision and in the associated press release, clearly defining the facts that climate change is happening, that human beings are responsible for it, that it is a major issue of national concern for Canada, and is an issue that no single government in Canada can act on alone. I think just those series of acknowledgments are really powerful for the highest court in our country to have made.
We’re now in a place where the Supreme Court of Canada is telling us climate change is a matter of national concern and we expect that Canadian governments of every order are going to have to work together to tackle it, and that is really significant because we have seen Canadian federalism unfortunately hinder consistent progress on climate action in this country. We’ve seen provinces sometimes leading on climate action while the federal government or other provincial governments are lagging behind; we’ve seen the federal government trying to lead on elements of climate action while provinces fight back against it. Yet climate change is a problem for all of us regardless of our political affiliation — it is a non-partisan issue that all parties and governments at every order need to be working together to address.
The Supreme Court has now affirmed the need for cooperative federalism on this critical issue and it think it potentially has the impact of clarifying the ability of the Canadian federal government to help uphold minimum standards to keep Canada accountable to our international climate commitments. Plus they found the federal carbon pricing law is constitutional and that’s great news!
That being said, the Supreme Court of Canada ruling is not the final word on these really complicated issues of climate action in the midst of Canadian federalism. We’re going to have to wait to see how the precedent of this ruling applies to other areas of necessary cooperation on climate action in this country before we can really say what impact it is going to have.
We hear about new technology helping to reduce carbon emissions, but there are also nature-based solutions to protecting the planet. Where do you see the most promising opportunities for investment by Canada and other countries?
The IPCC report on global warming of 1.5 degrees released in October 2018 made it clear that we already have all the technologies we need right now to move toward a 1.5 degree-aligned emissions reduction pathway globally. That report concluded that the key piece that is missing is the political will to get the job done. And so I think it’s necessary for us to encourage governments to deploy existing technologies, existing policy and regulatory approaches, and existing investment capacity to address the climate crisis, rather than allowing those decision makers and ourselves to become seduced by the temptation of silver-bullet technology fixes that may or may not emerge at some point in the future.
When we think about the places where that investment is warranted, we must acknowledge that ecosystem restoration yields exponentially more ecological benefits than investment in technology. The added bonus ecosystem restoration? It's better for people! Engaging in ecosystem restoration can be incredibly healing for individuals and communities. It can be a powerful way of helping people get back in touch with themselves, their community, and the non-human world. Again, climate action is not just being about incremental GHG emissions reduction — it's about building a better world. Fixating on technological solutions keeps us locked into the technocratic mindset that to some extent underpins the climate crisis and other ecological crises. That being said, we can’t think about nature as being transactional.
The net-zero conversation risks promoting the idea of trading nature restoration for the ability to keep pumping emissions out, particularly in the oil and gas sector — as if we can keep producing thousands of barrels of oil as long as we plant some trees or restore some water sheds. The reality is that ecosystem restoration is absolutely essential for addressing the harm that has been done to those ecosystems since industrialization, which is the cause of the huge biodiversity crisis that we are facing right now.
Biodiversity loss is the parallel crisis that operates hand in hand with the climate crisis and we can’t think about ecosystem restoration as being transactional, as being something that we engage in only so that we can maintain business as usual in these high emitting sectors. We can’t make a deal. That’s why the emphasis on getting to zero emissions while we restore ecosystems is absolutely essential.
The Leaders Summit on Climate hosted by the United States is coming up on April 22. What do you hope Canada will bring to this summit, and what outcomes would you and the Climate Action Network like to see?
We are expecting Canada to double down on its climate ambition at the Biden summit and afterward in the run-up to the next UN climate convention — COP26 in Glasgow.
We at Climate Action Network Canada believe Canada has to double its current domestic emissions reduction goal to get close to our fair share of the global effort to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. That means a move from our current commitment to reduce emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 to a commitment to reduce emissions by 60% below 2005 levels by 2030. We also think that Canada needs strong climate legislation to lock in those long-terms goals and to hold us accountable year over year to meeting them. That’s why improving, strengthening, and passing bill C12 — aka the Net-Zero Accountability Act — is really essential for Canada to do in the coming months.
The other piece of the puzzle is climate finance. We need to be thinking about the ways in which Canada can use its position as one of the ten wealthiest nations on the planet and account for its historical responsibility for the climate crisis. We’ve been a top-10 net emitter of greenhouse gas emissions for the last century; per capita, Canadians emit more per person than pretty much anyone else in the world; and we are one of the top five oil and gas producers and exporters globally. So we need to account for our responsibility for the climate crisis by helping those communities and countries inside and outside of Canada that are less responsible for the crisis and that have fewer means to adapt to the effects of climate change and implement climate solutions at home. That means dramatically increasing the amount of climate finance that we send abroad.
Finally, in the Biden climate plan we are seeing some really impressive, bold new approaches to redefining what climate policy looks like. In particular, we are seeing a very strong approach to talking openly about needing to decline the production of oil and gas, to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, and to engage in a Just Transition.
We have seen that the Biden administration has decided that climate and environmental policy can no longer be designed without thinking about social justice outcomes and that has also been a gap in Canadian climate and environmental policies so far. Bill C230, a bill to address environmental racism in Canada, passed through second reading in the House of Commins and is now sitting with committee, a small step forward in making sure Canada gets better at acknowledging and correcting environmental racism — the disproportionate harm that environmentally toxic sites or environmental crises like climate change and biodiversity loss have on BIPOC and marginalized people.
So many co-benefits are associated with climate action — cleaner air, more livable communities, a prosperous, climate safe-economy that produces meaningful jobs — but so far we have not been designing policy that really intends to achieve those social outcomes. We need to make sure that our policy results in those beneficial social outcomes intentionally rather than incidentally.