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Policy incoherence' tars federal climate strategy

·7 min read

A series of scathing reports from Canada’s climate watchdog have laid bare decades of failure to reduce emissions, with the current government tarred with “policy incoherence” across several files.

Used by the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development Jerry DeMarco to describe Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s major initiatives, like the Trans Mountain expansion pipeline and Onshore Emissions Reduction Fund, “policy incoherence” is, in this case, a euphemism for policies that undermine long-term climate goals.

The Trans Mountain expansion would nearly triple capacity for the pipeline stretching from Edmonton to Burnaby, helping to facilitate increased production in the oilsands. Meanwhile, the emissions reduction fund was so poorly designed that it amounts to little more than a fossil fuel subsidy that may have actually increased emissions, the commissioner found.

DeMarco compared Ottawa’s climate policy to pushing a boulder up a hill, and said policies like those supporting the fossil fuel sector run counter to the goal.

“When departments are then pushing up the hill … there's other departments pushing on the other side of the rock pushing it back down, that's essentially what's happening,” he said.

The federal government under Trudeau’s watch famously declared a climate emergency and then approved the Trans Mountain pipeline the next day from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion to ensure the expansion’s construction. Though the official price tag for the project has swollen from $5.4 billion to $12.6 billion, some have calculated that with continued delays and increased insurance costs, it is likely approaching $20 billion.

A growing chorus of international energy forecasts says there is no room for any new fossil fuel development in a world that holds global warming to the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 C, and that oil demand will decline in every scenario. But as recently as this month, Trudeau said it’s important for Canada to make money off its oil and gas sector as part of his justification for following through on the pipeline’s construction. Ottawa has repeatedly said the pipeline’s revenue will be deployed to environmentally friendly projects.

However, a cost-benefit analysis from Simon Fraser University earlier this year found there “is no likely scenario in which (the Trans Mountain expansion project) will generate a net benefit to Canada.” Rather, the net cost is expected to range from $8.3 billion to $18.5 billion, with the “base case assumptions” projecting a loss of $11.9 billion to Canadians.

The “federal government is relying on years-old talking points about Trans Mountain that just don't match the science or economics,” said climate advocacy group 350 Canada’s Cam Fenton.

“It's becoming increasingly clear that the government doesn't have an answer for this incoherence and that threatens to undermine their entire climate agenda."

Government messaging around the onshore emissions reduction fund has similarly not held up to scrutiny. The fund was started with the purpose of helping oil and gas companies reduce emissions while remaining economically competitive. DeMarco’s findings, however, show the majority of companies that tapped the fund said it would increase fossil fuel production, and that some of the emissions targeted by the funding were already covered by other programs, leading to the risk of double counting. In other words, it was a cash handout to the oil and gas industry.

DeMarco said his primary interest was its impact on emissions, but the government said there were other objectives around investments and job retention and suggested he take a more “holistic” approach. DeMarco says he asked for data and the government couldn’t provide it.

“We asked for the data on how much value for money are you getting, what is the dollar cost per job saved, for example, and they can't show us that … because they aren't tracking that,” he said.

“They have to be able to say to taxpayers: We've gathered the $600 (million) to $700 million from the tax base of Canada, we're redistributing it to the fossil fuel industry, (and) here's the value you're going to get out of that. There just can't be assertions that there will be emissions reductions, or job retention, or investment, there needs to be data to back that up,” he said.

Not being able to track stated goals “goes contrary to the basics of performance management in government,” DeMarco said.

DeMarco makes several recommendations in his report covering the past 30 years of Canada missing climate targets. Among them are calls to centralize responsibility for climate change with the federal government, diversifying energy production to lower the risk of stranded assets, protecting workers and communities from any harmful impacts of a transition to a clean economy, developing a national energy strategy, and improving transparency.

Environmental Defence senior program manager Julia Levin called the report “a scathing indictment of a failure of leadership put in gentler words.”

“A huge part of why they're not wearing this as much as they should be — why they can get away with continuing these big policy decisions that make fighting climate change even harder … is because they know they're not being closely watched,” she said.

Still, Levin said the Liberal Party is starting to pay the price for dragging its heels as the climate crisis continues to barrel down on Canadians.

“Twice in a row they weren't given a majority government,” she said.

Speaking with reporters, Climate Minister Steven Guilbeault acknowledged Canada has been poor at policy implementation but said since 2015, the federal government has been making progress.

“We have to do more, and in the last election, Canadians told us very clearly: We want you to do more and to do it faster when it comes to climate change. And that’s certainly a message that I’ve taken at heart and so has the rest of our government and the prime minister,” he said.

Opposition climate critics were quick to weigh in.

In a statement, NDP environment critic Laurel Collins challenged the idea that since Trudeau took office, progress has been made, highlighting that, unlike its G7 peers, Canada’s total emissions are still growing, its per-capita emissions are the highest in the world, and the country ranks in the top 10 for countries that have contributed the most to climate change since the Industrial Revolution.

“While Mr. Trudeau pretends to be a climate leader, he continues to give big oil and gas billions in fossil fuel subsidies,” she said.

The Conservative Party’s shadow ministers for climate, natural resources, and official languages, MPs Dan Albas, Michelle Rempel Garner, and Alain Rayes, respectively, also issued a joint statement, taking a swing at the federal government.

“The finding that the Natural Resources Canada’s Emissions Reduction Fund was so poorly designed that the funding may have actually led to an increase in carbon emissions is ridiculous. We urgently need policies that incent the continued development of low-carbon energy and carbon reduction,” the statement read.

Green Party parliamentary leader Elizabeth May told Canada’s National Observer that confronting the climate crisis requires leadership from the top to encourage a genuine whole-of-government approach.

“Clearly, there's something wrong when you look at 30 years of failure,” she said, adding, “the failure to have the response to climate be seen as a whole-of-government responsibility is, I think, key.”

May described how U.S. President Joe Biden tapped former secretary of state John Kerry, who signed the Paris Agreement on the U.S.’s behalf, to be a special climate envoy and sit on the National Security Council.

“It's a very different approach than Justin Trudeau saying, ‘Here's your new environment minister and he's going to fix it all,’” May said.

“The environment minister should not be in charge of the climate crisis file. No one minister should unless it's the prime minister. This requires leadership.”

John Woodside, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer

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