Some reasons for (cautious) optimism on the climate change front in 2020

Fires, floods and dwindling ice caps - the decade just past saw no shortage of dire signs and portents about the growing damage being done by climate change. But was 2019 also the year most Canadians started taking the problem seriously?

2019 was the year that climate policy took a decisive turn in Canadian politics

Sunlight breaks through dark clouds shining on a wind farm in Wilhelmshaven, on the North Sea coast of Germany this month. (Mohssen Assanimoghaddam/The Associated Press)

The second decade of the 21st century was not comforting.

The celebration of the so-called "end of history" turned out to be premature. Liberal democracy proved to be less than inevitable and progress could no longer by taken for granted. Populism, nationalism and authoritarianism reared their heads. New media fed our worst impulses.

The scales fell and all that remains unreconciled became clear. The stakes in our politics were thrown into stark relief. There was unrest in the streets and the planet was, quite literally, aflame.

It also may have been a good decade for climate policy in Canada.

This country wasn't immune to the political forces that came to the fore over the last 10 years. Our most important trading partner and closest ally is in the throes of a political and social crisis. And our own politics experienced dramatic shifts — from the Conservative majority in 2011 to the Liberal majority in 2015 — that may reverberate for years to come.

Stephen Harper created a durable political party that is firmly planted on the political right. Justin Trudeau is now leading the most activist federal government since Lester B. Pearson. The fates of their respective projects will define the pursuit of power in Canada for the foreseeable future.

A helicopter battles a wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alta., in 2016. A year later, the fire season in British Columbia broke records as 2,117 blazes consumed more than 12,000 sq. kilometres of bush. Both events have been connected to climate change in two separate research papers. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

The increasingly unavoidable realities of climate change will shape whatever comes in the next decade. But the work of the next ten years will benefit from significant progress made in the last ten.

It's not easy to feel good about anything related to climate change. The latest international conference ended without significant progress. Average temperatures continue to rise. The world's largest emitters still aren't doing enough. And after decades of failing to confront the problem, the impacts are no longer theoretical. The need for action is now urgent.

The provinces step up

But the last decade in Canada did see significant action. British Columbia's carbon tax, introduced in 2008, survived an election in 2009 and a change of government in 2017. The province's New Democrats, once opposed to the policy, became the first government to increase the levy in six years when they raised it to $35 per tonne in 2018.

In 2014, Ontario completed the phase-out of its coal-fired power plants — a change that is believed to have resulted in the single largest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in North America. That same year, Quebec joined its cap-and-trade system with California's, creating the largest carbon market on the continent.

Climate policy in Alberta has lurched markedly from Rachel Notley's NDP government to Jason Kenney's United Conservative government, but at least two important elements remain: a planned phase-out of coal and a carbon levy for large industries. Meanwhile, in the wake of this fall's federal election, New Brunswick ended its opposition and agreed to implement a carbon tax on fuel.

Between 2010 and 2020, emissions in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are projected to decline. They're expected to hold steady in British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba.

A car is charged at a charging station for electric vehicles on Parliament Hill in May. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Boosted by a combination of incentives in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, 43,655 zero-emission vehicles were registered in Canada in 2018 — an impressive increase over the 518 such vehicles that hit the road in 2011.

In 2009, wind and solar accounted for 1.2 per cent of the electricity generated in Canada, while coal and oil made up 13 per cent. In 2020, wind and solar are projected to account for 5.5 per cent, while coal and gas are down to 7.6 per cent. Hydro, wave and tidal energy are expected to account for 61.4 per cent of electricity generation.

Federally, Stephen Harper's Conservatives were reluctant to act aggressively, but they were at least willing to match the fuel-efficiency standards implemented by Barack Obama's administration in the United States. The pace of federal action has picked up markedly since 2015 — a federal carbon price, new regulations on methane emissions, billions of dollars in public funds committed to clean technology and "green infrastructure" and plans for a new clean fuel standard. 

In 2011, the Government of Canada's official projection showed national emissions rising through the decade, reaching 785 megatonnes in 2020. The projection published in 2018 shows Canada's emissions reaching 704 Mt in 2020 — and then declining to 616 Mt by 2030.

However belated, it's a move in the right direction.

It's also not nearly enough.

The new politics of carbon

Even once you take into account carbon credits for land-use changes, Canada's emissions were still projected to be 592 Mt in 2030, 77 Mt short of our target. And the goal for 2050 is now net-zero.

That is a daunting task. It remains to be seen whether our leaders have the will, the skill and the courage to get us there. And Canada's efforts, however far they go, address just one part of a global problem.

But it's also possible that — in Canada, at least — the politics of carbon have changed.

A decade ago, Stéphane Dion's proposal to implement a carbon tax was like a political albatross hanging around the thin shoulders of the Liberal leader. In 2019, 63 per cent of voters — more than 11 million Canadians — cast a ballot for a party that supported a price on carbon.

The subject was front and centre in the throne speech that opened Parliament last month. That was no accident. Both the Liberal minority government's survival in the House of Commons and its hopes of improving its standing in the next election seem to depend on reaching out to the parties and voters who want to do something about climate change.

The hard work is still ahead

True national consensus — broad agreement on the goals of climate policy and the need for action, if not quite the precise details — may depend on where the Conservative Party goes in its upcoming leadership race. The federal carbon price is still being challenged in court by a number of provinces. And it remains to be seen whether public opinion about climate change can withstand an economic downturn, or any of the other unforeseen events that can shift opinion and political power.

The emissions that still have to be cut will not go away easily. Buildings need to be retrofitted. While electric cars are no longer boutique oddities, they're still vastly outnumbered by gas-powered pick-up trucks and SUVs.

Great change must be managed. And if the election of 2019 seemed to reveal a burgeoning coalition of voters who want action on climate change, it also clarified the challenges and the potential fissures that the transition to a low-carbon world could open up.

Between 2010 and 2020, Alberta's emissions are projected to increase from 239 Mt to 277 Mt. Every corner of the country reaped the benefits of the resource development driving those emissions. Reducing them will require a national effort.

There is more work ahead for this country's political leaders than there is behind them. Arguably, the work still to be done will be harder. But it's also possible that the impacts of climate change — the fires and floods — will continue to be too much for most voters to ignore.

One way or another, climate change will form the backdrop to everything else that happens in politics over the next decade: populism, nationalism, economic inequality, mass migration, geopolitical power struggles, fears for the future of Western democratic institutions. And all of those forces threaten to make it even harder to act to reduce emissions.

The second decade of the 21st century ends with a feeling of precariousness. And the next ten years promise to be neither easy nor relaxing.

The last decade proved that progress is not inevitable. But it also showed that progress is possible.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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