The Canadian in Paris

By Simon Dalby | October 23, 2015

After nine years of Conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Canadians have elected the Liberal Party, led by Justin Trudeau, to take power in Ottawa.

This comes just six weeks prior to a major UN climate change conference in Paris where world leaders hope to make a binding agreement on greenhouse emissions and related problems. Trudeau will be one of those leaders.

So what difference will the election make for Canadian policy, and hence in Paris? Harper’s climate policy generally ranged from laggard to just plain obstructive. Trudeau’s victory might change that, but probably not as much as activists hope.

The Liberal election platform promised to work on climate change issues, promote green infrastructure, phase out fossil fuel subsidies, and ensure that practical plans are in place in the provinces to meet targets. But it did not include any dramatic innovations, promises of large reductions in emissions, or serious constraints on petroleum production. Trudeau is on record favoring construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, so climate activists don’t have high expectations. It’s also worth noting that Trudeau will become prime minster on November 4, less than a month before the Paris conference opens, which gives him very little time to set major policy changes in motion.

That said, the most obvious point about the change in government could be the most important. Justin Trudeau is not Stephen Harper. He doesn’t share his predecessor’s antipathy to international institutions and he apparently understands the value of cooperation in accomplishing goals on the world stage. Whatever the finer points of the Canadian negotiating position in Paris may turn out to be, Canada’s obstructive role in the last nine UN climate meetings, one that has caused major problems in the talks, is likely over. With Harper and his likeminded Australian counterpart, Tony Abbott, out of power, two obstacles in Paris have lifted.

Still, much of the conference’s diplomatic process is driven by official declarations of emissions goals, and Canada’s statement of intent, already submitted to the UN by the Harper government earlier this year, probably won’t change before the December meeting. Canada is a confederation in which the ten constituent provinces have considerable autonomy over resource and environmental issues. Ontario has already stopped using coal to generate electricity; British Columbia has a carbon tax that seems to be working well; and Quebec has an emissions cap-and-trade system in an arrangement with California that is now also being linked to Ontario. Even Alberta, home of the infamous tar sands, has some limited constraints on emissions. But a comprehensive Canadian climate policy requires provincial coordination and common goals agreed to with the federal government. Harper simply refused to meet with all the provincial premiers to deal with climate in a coordinated way. During the recent campaign, Trudeau promised he would do so after Paris. Environmentalists have protested that this is too late, but it’s unclear how Trudeau might call such a meeting and broker a major national policy change in so little time.

Environmentalists hope Green Party leader Elizabeth May will have a role in Paris, but although she’s clearly one of the top politicians dealing with climate issues, she’s unlikely to make Trudeau’s new cabinet. Stéphane Dion, the environment minister who chaired the 2005 UN climate meeting in Montreal and won praise for rescuing the Kyoto Protocol there, might yet emerge to play a role in the new government. He’d bring intergovernmental experience to the difficult task of coordinating a new national policy, but Trudeau might just as well opt for a new minister to aid in climate talks abroad.

Party jockeying aside, Canada’s new prime minister must also address a legacy of weak federal climate policy stretching back to earlier Liberal governments. Despite Dion’s efforts to rescue Kyoto, for example, the government he then served simply didn’t have a plan to ensure that Canada met its commitments to the agreement. Overcoming these failures, and gaining the trust of activists at home and abroad, is part of what Trudeau needs to accomplish if he wishes to be taken seriously on matters of climate change and live up to his promise to bring “real change” to Canada.

In terms of personality, Trudeau is the antithesis of Harper—a photogenic, charismatic extrovert who is happy to meet people, keen to express optimism and facilitate cooperation. With his youthful good looks and fluent French, he’ll cut a dashing figure in Paris, an ideal venue for him to recalibrate Canada’s posture on climate change or even announce a new, more constructive Canadian policy. A success in Paris would boost his new government on the world stage and send a clear message to supporters at home. Despite the very tight timing, Trudeau has considerable incentive to at the very least be seen as actively working to make the climate conference succeed. 

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