How Biden can help Canada do better on climate
President-elect Biden’s pledge to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the United States — and ensure that it finally does its part to tackle the climate crisis — is welcome news. So, too, is his promise to return the country to the Paris Agreement and help rally the rest of the world to take urgent climate action to avert the worst consequences of climate change.
Here in Canada, we certainly could use some help, which the U.S. is in a unique position to provide.
Canada is one of the world’s top 10 greenhouse gas emitters and one of its largest exporters of oil and gas. The United States, the world’s second largest emitter, buys a whopping 96 percent of these exports. For the U.S., Canada is the largest foreign source of oil and gas, by far. Our two countries’ climate ambitions, good or bad, are therefore largely and inextricably linked.
Canada is warming at twice the global average — three times the global average in its North — and the changing temperatures are taking a growing toll on people’s lives. A recent Human Rights Watch report documented, for example, how climate change is depleting the traditional food sources of Indigenous people in northern Canada, contributing to a growing problem of food insecurity and preventable health problems. As the warming continues, these sorts of impacts will intensify and multiply across Canada, as well as in the United States.
Five years ago, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told delegates at the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris: “Canada is back, my friends. We’re here to help,” announcing that Canada “will take on a new leadership role internationally.” But his government has failed ever since to match these words with climate action. Canada is nowhere near on track to meet even the weak emissions target set by Trudeau’s predecessor, Stephen Harper. Instead, the government has continued to subsidize the country’s high-emitting fossil fuel sector. Today it is the largest per-capita public financer of fossil fuels among G20 countries.
The COVID-19 pandemic offered an unprecedented opportunity for Trudeau to forge a new path as his government came up with a sizable recovery package that could have been used to prioritize clean energy. Instead, Canada doled out more than US$11.4 billion in support to the fossil fuel industry (around US$300 per Canadian), while investing in fossil fuel infrastructure that could lock Canada into high emissions for years to come.
Arguably, domestic political considerations provide little incentive for Trudeau to address the climate crisis head-on. In Canada’s West, which produces most of the country’s oil and gas, support for fossil fuels, and the jobs this sector creates, translates into votes, few of which were cast in Trudeau’s favor in the 2019 election. In Alberta, one of the West’s oil-rich provinces, Trudeau’s government does not have a single member of parliament out of the 34 available. Facing this political dynamic — and eager to show support for western Canada’s oil and gas sector, as it copes with low crude prices and COVID-19 impacts — Trudeau’s minority government has seemed unwilling to make the move away from fossil fuels that is needed to match his strong words on climate.
And that’s where the United States’s policies can have an important impact. If Biden follows through on his stated plan to reduce U.S. reliance on fossil fuels, then the dominant market for Canadian oil and gas exports will begin to disappear. Two of Biden’s promises, in particular, could hasten the process of reducing the U.S. market for this oil and gas, though — canceling the federal permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, and adopting “carbon adjustment” fees on carbon-intensive goods from other countries that are failing to meet their climate obligations.
But Canada also has abundant potential for its own clean energy revolution, and in some provinces electricity is produced from largely renewable sources. Canada has some of the world’s most significant reserves of the metals needed for a transition to renewable energy. A ready-made market south of the border with nine times the Canadian population is a significant economic opportunity for a forward-looking Canadian government. A U.S. clean energy economic boom can help encourage further development of these industries in Canada and the jobs that go along with them.
By doing the right thing in the United States, Biden will help us do the right thing in Canada — and create conditions to work with Trudeau on developing a common agenda for what is a common problem. As Biden states in his climate plan: “We can no longer separate trade policy from our climate objectives.” He’s absolutely right. Let’s hope he now brings to Washington the kind of leadership on climate that’s been lacking in Ottawa — and that it proves contagious.
Felix Horne is a senior Environment Division researcher at Human Rights Watch in Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @FelixHorne1.