Will new leadership boost Canadian contribution to global climate negotiations?

As Prime Minister Trudeau prepares to represent his country at the G20 and COP21, will he bring Canada's climate and environment polices in from the cold?

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Dave Steinbach
Dave Steinbach is a researcher in IIED's Climate Change Group
21 October 2015
Squamish river, Canada. Under Stephen Harper, Canada has lagged behind the rest of the world in combating climate change; will new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau make a difference? (Photo: James Wheeler, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

Squamish river, Canada. Under Stephen Harper, Canada has lagged behind the rest of the world in combating climate change; will new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau make a difference? (Photo: James Wheeler, Creative Commons, via Flickr)

This week Canada resoundingly voted for change, electing Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party to its first victory since 2004. In less than three years as leader, Trudeau has led his party from third place outsiders to power, a feat that can be seen as a repudiation of nearly a decade of Conservative rule.

Prime Minister Trudeau's election comes at an important time for the future of our planet, with world leaders due to sign an historic international climate change deal this December in Paris.

Over the past year, there is a growing momentum that suggests a global deal is within reach: the major United States-China climate pledge, committing the world's two biggest emitters to climate action; departure of climate sceptic PM Tony Abbott from power in Australia; a landmark climate change plan launched by India; commitments by G7 leaders to decarbonise the global economy by the end of the century, and more.

Is Canada's vote for change a further domino falling into place to enable the international community to sign a global deal in Paris that is binding and can arrest global warming at a two degree rise?

Facing early tests from a standing start

Justin Trudeau is a relative unknown on the world stage. But when it comes to the critical issue of climate change, it will not take long to see what type of leader he intends to be.

Two imminent major international summits will offer clear indications of whether Trudeau's Canada intends to constructively re-engage in international climate change decision-making: the G20 Leaders Summit in November, looking at climate finance and sustainable energy investment in lower-income developing countries, and COP21 in December, expected to yield a global climate accord.

Trudeau must approach any negotiation under the shadow of a dismal environmental legacy left by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, under whom Canada was viewed both internationally and at home as a climate laggard.

Harper's Canada was the first country to pull out of the Kyoto Protocol. It expanded production of the tar sands in Alberta, repealed national environmental legislation, and introduced restrictions that muzzled scientists from the government's own department of environment.

Trudeau has inherited a nation with the highest per capita emissions in the world and ninth largest overall. At COP15 in Copenhagen, Canada tied its emissions reduction pledge to the United States (17 per cent emissions reductions by 2020, below 2005 levels) – arguing that it would not take on an unfair burden affecting trade with its biggest ally.

This backfired when the US increased its climate ambition in 2014, and the Canadian government was forced to admit it would not meet either its Kyoto or Copenhagen pledges. Canada is now on track to see its emissions grow by 35 per cent from 1990 levels, compared to a growth of 1-4 per cent in the US and a reduction of 22-27 per cent in the European Union.

What can we expect from a Liberal Canada?

The Liberal campaign was cautious about making climate change pledges. Rather than commit to an emissions reductions target, they plan instead to work with all ten provinces (many of which are already leading the way with their own pledges) to co-design an emissions reduction strategy without imposing top-down federal targets.

For climate change analysts, there are some encouraging signs that this is a pragmatic shift away from Conservative obstruction over the past decade. With so little time before COP21, Prime Minister Trudeau has both promised to attend and to deliver a plan to revamp Canada's climate position within 90 days of the Paris conference.

While it is reasonable for the international community to expect strong supporting statements on emissions reductions, renewable energy, and support for the costs of adaptation, this three-month window is a realistic move. 

In addition, the Liberal Party platform explicitly acknowledges the UN goal to limit global temperature rise below two degrees, earmarks C$2 billion for emissions reduction projects, promises further investment in green infrastructure, supports carbon pricing, and proposes a gradual phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies.

On the other hand, Trudeau's omission of climate change or the environment in his acceptance speech suggests these issues may not be immediate priorities. Indeed, his support for the Keystone XL pipeline indicates that environmental issues could be sacrificed in the name of economic growth.

The road to Paris

There are a number of important issues that must be resolved at COP21 to deliver a truly ambitious and equitable response to climate change for our common future. These include:

  • Clear commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions emissions and limit warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius below pre-industrial levels (the more cautious target advocated by the Least Developed Countries (LDC) Group)
  • Promoting huge investment in renewable energy and energy efficiency
  • Scaling-up adaptation actions (universally, with grant-based finance for the LDCs)
  • Providing long-term climate finance of at least US$100 billion per year by 2020, and 
  • Addressing the issue of loss and damage.

While the election of Justin Trudeau is about far more than a repudiation of Stephen Harper's environmental agenda, it can be read as a welcome sign that Canada may now re-engage with the critical issues that we face as a global community.  

In just a few weeks we will see whether Canadian leadership will step up to the global climate negotiating table. 

Dave Steinbach ([email protected]) is a researcher in IIED's Climate Change Group.