Climate

Will Canada’s New Prime Minister Turn His Campaign Promises Into Climate Action?

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Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau won the title of prime minister Monday.

The votes are in, and Stephen Harper is out.

Canadians voted the country’s Liberal Party into power Monday, results that ushered in Liberal leader Justin Trudeau as prime minister and spelled the end for Conservative Stephen Harper’s nine-year run in the role. Harper now heads up the country’s Official Opposition, as his party came in second place ahead of Tom Mulcair’s New Democratic Party.

Harper’s policies had turned him into something of a villain in climate and environmental circles. His government staunchly supported the tar sands industry, and he’s long backed the construction of Keystone XL and other tar sands pipelines. His administration’s treatment of scientists — the Conservative Party’s 2007 rules on Environment Canada scientists’ media interactions ended up reducing scientists’ discussions with the media on climate change by 80 percent — was condemned as “muzzling,” and led one Environment Canada scientist to pen an anti-Harper folk song (sample lyrics: “Well who reveres Uncle Sam? Says our future lies in oil sands?”).

But now, with Trudeau taking over the reins as prime minister, many are hopeful that Canada’s environmental path will shift. There are still a lot of unknowns about exactly how a Liberal government will tackle environmental issues, Erin Flanagan, an analyst at the Pembina Institute, told ThinkProgress. The Liberal Party’s platform includes a tenet to create “a national environmental strategy that embraces scientific evidence and accepts the reality of human-caused climate change,” policy which would help keep warming under 2°C and ensure that Canada contributes to its “fair share” of emissions reductions.

“But [Liberals] haven’t said specifically what that means in terms of emissions targets,” Flanagan said. “They’re saying really exciting and interesting things that we haven’t heard in this country in a decade, but they haven’t been specific.”

The party’s been asked to provide numbers for emissions reductions targets, but it hasn’t yet done so, she said. Canada pledged earlier this year to reduce its emissions 30 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2030, but that commitment was criticized by many as not being ambitious enough. Flanagan said that, ideally, a Liberal government would change that commitment to be more aggressive.

“Canada at any point could say, ‘We actually want to be the most aggressive country in world,” she said. Trudeau’s party won a majority government at Monday’s election, securing 184 of Canada’s 338 seats. They were elected, Flanagan said “with the resounding confidence of the country. They can do whatever they want to — there’s no good reason why they wouldn’t go through with that process.”

Trudeau has said he’ll work to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and supports a ban on oil tankers off of British Columbia’s North Coast. He also says he wants to create a national carbon pricing system that gives provinces freedom to set their own emissions reduction goals. What that design doesn’t address, Flanagan said, is how the government will ensure that provinces like Alberta — home to the tar sands — are setting ambitious enough targets. That’s a “critical question” for Canada, she said, because much of Canada’s success in emissions reductions depends on the regulation of the tar sands industry. In 2014, Canada’s energy sector surpassed transportation as the largest-emitting sector, largely because of tar sands production.

Trudeau’s come under fire from environmentalists because of his support for the Keystone XL pipeline; support that’s partly why renowned Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki reportedly refused to endorse Trudeau. Trudeau does oppose Canada’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would carry tar sands from Alberta to British Columbia, but hasn’t said one way or another whether he supports the Energy East pipeline, which would carry the oil to refineries in Eastern Canada.

Flanagan said that it’ll be important to see how a Trudeau government treats the pipeline process. Trudeau has called for more safety when building new energy infrastructure, and the Liberal Party platform includes a pledge to make “environmental assessments credible again.”

“Right out of the gate we know the Liberals see this as a problem and want to make the pipeline review process more credible,” which is a major change from the Harper government, Flanagan said. But as Trudeau’s come out in support of some pipelines but not others, it’s not clear whether all pipelines will be held to the same standards.

In terms of renewable energy, Trudeau’s party has pledged to create the Canada Infrastructure Bank, which will provide financing and bonds to infrastructure and renewable energy projects. The party has also said it will invest $100 million each year into clean technology producers, and $200 million each year to “support innovation” in multiple industries, including energy and mining.

Nick Blitterswyk, CEO of renewable energy solutions company UGE, said he was hopeful about the future of renewables in Canada under a Trudeau government.

“It’s clear that the environment played a big role in this election, and we’ll be watching to see how Trudeau commits to combating climate change and investing in green infrastructure,” he said in a statement to ThinkProgress. “We know renewable energy has huge potential in Canada, if only we can get the right policies behind it. In places like Ontario, where there is a feed-in tariff, we’ve seen the solar market explode. With the Liberals taking back a majority of the government, we look forward to clean energy being put back at the top of the agenda.”

Change was a central part of Trudeau’s campaign, and change is what environmentalists hope will come with his tenure.

“We hope our good neighbors’ new leaders will take real action on climate change by adopting a plan to meet its international climate commitments, stop the destructive expansion of tar sands, and open environmental decision-making to sound science and broad public review,” Anthony Swift, Canada project director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement.

Environmental groups are already planning to show Trudeau they’re serious about holding him accountable on climate change: 350.org, which said in a statement that Trudeau needed to “put a freeze on new tar sands development and respect the rights of indigenous and First Nations communities in Canada,” said that they were planning on holding four days of sit-ins in Ottawa in the coming weeks.

And Canadians — as well as people around the world who are watching Canada’s next moves on the environment — won’t have to wait long to see how their new government will differ from Harper’s. Flanagan said the real test for the Liberal government will come during the Paris climate talks, which are slated to begin at the end of November.

“How is Canada going to show up in Paris with a government that’s made some rhetorical statements on 2 degrees but hasn’t backed it up in terms of policies?” she said. “These negotiations are happening really soon and I think Canadians expect this government is going to be different in prioritizing its approach to Paris talks.”