Trudeau tracker: Has the prime minister kept his promise on the environment?

Justin Trudeau swept into power last October promising “real change,” and there’s likely no commitment in the Liberal platform that will be more closely judged against that slogan than Trudeau’s commitment to tackle climate change.

Prime minister taking action on climate change after a decade of near inactivity

Chris Hall looks at whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is keeping his promise to take action on climate change. 1:57

This is the third of a regular segment on The National tracking the Liberal government's performance on its campaign promises.

Justin Trudeau swept into power last October promising "real change" after nearly a decade of Conservative government, and there's likely no commitment in the Liberal platform that will be more closely judged against that slogan than Trudeau's commitment to tackle climate change.

"Canada is back, my friends,'' the prime minister told delegates last December at the United Nations environmental conference in Paris. "We're here to help."

Help, as opposed to hinder. This country has been an outlier on the climate change file for years. In 2011, Canada was the only country to withdraw from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.  

The previous government did sign on to a new climate change convention in Copenhagen in 2009, but Canada will fail to meet that modest commitment to reduce emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.

As action from the federal government slowed, greenhouse gas emissions continued to grow, and the clamour for action from environmentalists intensified.

More countries began to link severe weather events to warming global temperatures. And politicians of every stripe backed away from the argument that protecting the environment and the economy was somehow mutually exclusive — that anything done to preserve the environment would automatically kill jobs, raise taxes and drive out investment.

It was against that backdrop that the Liberals crafted their campaign commitments under the heading, "A Clean Environment and a Strong Economy," clearly linking future growth to sustainable development.

"We will provide national leadership and join with the provinces and territories to take action on climate change, put a price on carbon, and reduce carbon pollution," the platform reads.

But, unlike their political opponents, the Liberals refused to set emission reduction targets. Trudeau argued that targets without a plan to achieve them would lead to more failure.

More to the point, the provinces had already begun to act.

"From cap and trade, to a ban on coal-fired electricity generation. From world-leading innovation on carbon capture and storage to a revenue neutral carbon tax, we can learn and build on these models," Trudeau said in Paris.

So what happens now?

The platform promised that Trudeau would sit down with provincial and territorial leaders within 90 days of the Paris conference "to establish a pan-Canadian framework for combating climate change."

Canada has been an outlier on the climate change file for years. In 2011, Canada withdrew from the 1992 Kyoto Protocol. The Conservative government signed on to a new climate change deal in Copenhagen in 2009, but Canada will fail to meet the reduction of emissions by 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. (Christian Charisius/Reuters)

That meeting takes place later this week, but anyone expecting the leaders to emerge with an agreement for a price on carbon, or specific emission reduction targets, will be disappointed.

Instead, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna says it will kick-start another six months of consultations. It is a timeline that would mean reporting back to the first ministers by September, the month some environmental groups have set as the deadline for having a national climate plan in place if Canada is to show the world that it's really "back," as Trudeau claimed.

"We need the input of experts. We need the input of Canadians," McKenna told reporters on Monday. "We need to make sure that what we're doing is done in a thoughtful way. We want to do this so it grows our economy and leads on a much more sustainable path."

Carbon pricing

Working groups will be established to look at innovation, clean technology and carbon reduction programs as well as carbon pricing.

That last one is a non-starter for Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall. He will not be signing on to a pan-Canadian framework if carbon pricing is included, arguing it will lead to an exodus of money from his province.

On the other side, five provinces already have some form of pricing, from a revenue-neutral carbon tax in British Columbia, to a cap-and-trade system in Quebec and Ontario.

It's an interesting twist to the usual 13-1 scenario at federal-provincial meetings, where Ottawa is the odd government out.

And in that sense, while this week's first minister's meeting won't produce something akin to former prime minister Paul Martin's 10-year, $41-billion health-care accord, the mere fact that Trudeau is sitting down with premiers on a matter of shared national interest is a departure from the past decade, when former prime minister Stephen Harper steadfastly refused to meet with his provincial counterparts as a group.

This willingness on the part of Trudeau, at the very least, is an indication that the prime minister is serious about addressing climate change by phasing out subsidies for fossil fuel, putting a price on pollution and creating a $2-billion low carbon economy trust during this mandate.

And, underlying it all, to finally establish both emission reduction targets and a credible, national plan to meet them, is what voters expected when the Liberals promised "real change" on the environment.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.


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