Examining Trudeau’s environmental record

A year ago I wrote an article on the new Liberal government reversing the previous conservative government’s ban on Canadian scientists talking to the media about climate change, praising the move as a sign that the Trudeau would be doing a complete 180 on the Harper government’s disastrous environmental record.

At first it seemed like this was the case – Trudeau appointed Catherine McKenna as Minister of Environment, expanding the title to “Minister of Environment and Climate Change,” and she took a bold stance at the Paris climate negotiations, making Canada the first industrialized country to raise the stakes in the treaty negotiations; McKenna argued that the world had to hold global average temperatures to no more than 1.5˚C, rather than the 2˚C agreed upon previously.

By mid-2016, Trudeau had assembled the country’s premiers to work on a nation-wide plan to institute a system of carbon-pricing and advancing environmentally-sustainable technology, as well as joining the presidents of the US and Mexico in pledging to cut North American greenhouse gas emissions and committing $2.65 billion over the next 5 years to help developing countries tackle climate change.

“So how much better is Canada’s climate target than before the Liberals swept to power? Astonishingly, not one bit.” said famed environmentalist David Suzuki in an interview with the Huffington Post. “Despite all the activity that has taken place, Canada is ignoring its greenhouse gas emissions reduction goal; the Paris Agreement doesn’t even include individual national promises.”

So what has the Trudeau government done to reduce Canada’s carbon emissions? Well, this past week they announced that a national carbon-pricing scheme would be put in place by 2018, imposing a price of $10/tonne on polluters and rising to $50/tonne by 2022. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, experts say that it is not nearly enough; to get serious about reducing emissions, Canada needs a revenue neutral carbon price plan in the $100-200 range, starting immediately. They say all the money raised should be returned to the public in income tax cuts or grants to help people cope with the higher cost of living the carbon pricing imposes, and to create real demand for lower emissions without having to subsidize huge corporations with billions of dollars in public money, which every carbon pricing scheme currently being considered does.

Unfortunately the Liberals seem to have all but abandoned their previously ambitious goals in the face of “economic realism” (i.e. lobbying dollars from fossil fuel industries and pressure from the provinces to create jobs). The Trudeau government has notably failed to expand the Harper government’s goal of reducing emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, which has been described by experts as “a weak target”; Minister McKenna herself has previously decried these targets as “un-ambitious” and “fake,” but now whole-heartedly supports them. Currently, we are not even close to achieving this milquetoast goal: since 2005, emissions have reduced by just 2 per cent, meaning that in the next 14 years we must reduce levels by 28 per cent (equivalent all of Canada’s transportation-related emissions) just to hit Harper’s embarrassingly low targets.

In addition, Trudeau has supported a number of controversial fossil fuel infrastructure projects. He actively campaigned for the Keystone XL, Northern Gateway, and Energy East pipelines, all of which have raised serious concerns with environmental groups.

Just last month the federal government issued approval for the $36-billion Pacific Northwest Liquefied Natural Gas expert terminal on Leiu Island off the coast of BC. The project entails ramping up fracking in north-eastern BC, building a pipeline down the west coast, and constructing an export terminal near a crucial area for juvenile salmon. It is expected to be one of the largest polluters in the country, making it all but impossible for BC to achieve its emissions reduction targets; a report from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency shows that it will increase BC emissions by as much as 8.5%, dumping 9.2 million tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere every year (equivalent to 1.9 million cars).

These questionable environmental decisions also damage Trudeau’s pledge to work closer with First Nations peoples on issues which the federal government have a long history of disregarding. In March, Trudeau signed off on the Site C Hydroelectric Dam on the Peace River in northeast BC, which is on Treaty 8 territory. Despite protests from all six local tribes that the dam (which will provide power to the above-mentioned fracking projects, despite its claim to be a source of “clean energy”) will pollute their water and flood ancient burial grounds, the project was given the go-ahead by the federal government.

Rejecting any of the above policies would provide some sign that the government is willing to make tough economical choices in order to stand up for its principals and not compromise on environmental concerns, but sadly that did not happen.

Politically, Trudeau’s policies are actually rather clever – he can, with some legitimacy, claim that the government is playing a leading role in the fight against global warming (if only by marginally clearing the already-pathetically-low bar for such matters), but at the same time not offend too many voters in provinces where fossil fuel industries hold more sway. The reality, though, is that there is no middle ground here; Trudeau cannot have his cake and eat it too on climate change. Approving new fracking initiatives and pipeline projects will absolutely not help meet emissions reduction targets, no matter how much the government argues that massive investments in fossil fuel infrastructure will somehow help Canada transition to a carbon-neutral economy.