As election results rolled in last night in downtown Ottawa, climate hawks assessed the results of the first campaign in Canadian history where climate change was at the top of the political agenda.
Now, they say the next step is to hold a reconfigured parliament accountable for the domestic action and international commitments that will make the country a world leader in responding to the climate crisis.
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“Climate has never been such a vote-determining issue in an election, and it’s great to see that happening,” said Sointula, British Columbia-based climate communicator (and The Energy Mix board member) Jennifer Lash. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party came to power in 2015 promising climate action “and they delivered on part of that,” more than any other federal government to date, she added. But the public response to the climate crisis “showed them that half-way wasn’t enough, and civil society told them they needed to do more.”
With the NDP and Green Party hearing and amplifying that call, “I’d like to think [the Liberals] have had a wake-up call, that this election has been a bit hair-raising for them, and the call for real climate action in this country is stronger than the call for more oil and gas,” Lash said.
Climate Action Network-Canada Executive Director Catherine Abreu pointed to the massive public response on climate as an important win. “The majority of voters tonight voted for parties with strong climate plans, and a win is any configuration of government that allows for that desire to be realized,” she told The Mix. That broad public voice represents a “strong signal from the electorate that all parties need to be taking this seriously.”
Abreu said she was pleased with the relentless effort the Canadian climate community put into its non-partisan messaging during the campaign. “We’ve done everything we could possibly do to make climate change the number one issue in this election, and to equip Canadians with the information they needed to make the right choice,” she said. “I’m so proud of us, and really hopeful that we’ve accomplished a lot.”
Environmental Defence National Program Manager Dale Marshall pointed to a change in narrative Canada has seen since 2008, when climate change was brought to the centre of an election campaign by just one of the national parties, driven by a leader who was widely perceived as a poor communicator. “Now it’s not just one party trying to push climate change as an issue,” he said. “All the parties came out with climate plans, many of them were really good, and even the parties that didn’t have very good plans still tried to tell electors they cared about the issue.”
In an election night statement from Toronto, Environmental Defence Executive Director Tim Gray called for  a legislated and more ambitious greenhouse gas target, an accountability mechanism to keep emission reductions on track, a “swift end to fossil fuel subsidies”, and reform of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act as first orders of business for the new government. Marshall rolled many or all of those specific items into a single, all-encompassing goal for a minority government that may only have a lifespan of 18 to 24 months.
“If Canada could figure out how to cap, then phase out oil and gas over the next two to three decades, that would be an amazing accomplishment,” and “the most important thing Canada can do about climate change,” he told The Mix. Getting to that point would take in some of the more specific but still essential goals the climate community has put forward over the last four years—beginning with a just transition for fossil workers and communities, “thinking about the other industries that will need to grow to both supply Canada with clean, renewable energy and create economic opportunities” beyond the fossil sector.
Marshall added that the big-picture goal was a good match with some of the specific issues he’s worked on in recent years, like methane regulations and fossil fuel subsidies. “While we work to phase [fossil fuels] out, we also have to green them,” he said. “We have to stop putting money into the industries we’re phasing out, and put it into the ones that provide the green energy and economic opportunities we need.”
Marshall and Lash said that begins with no more approvals for pipelines or other long-term infrastructure that run counter to the country’s 2050 decarbonization goal. “They need to reject the Teck Frontier Mine, which will be one of the first things on the new government’s plate,” Lash declared. “They need to cancel the TMX pipeline, because it’s not in the interest of a country that’s going to meet a 2050 [carbon] target. They need to assess every fossil fuel infrastructure project to determine whether they undercut Canada’s ability to hit a 2050 net zero target.”
Abreu pointed to this year’s United Nations climate conference in Chile, COP 25, as another early test for the new government. “They have to show up at the COP with something substantive to say about how Canada will submit a more ambitious [greenhouse gas reduction] target by 2020,” she said. That will mean legislating the reductions and building in an accountability mechanism to hold the government responsible for meeting its goals.
“They’ll also have to launch a process to determine Canada’s fair share of the global effort on climate change,” Abreu said.
Christian Ledwell, policy advisor with the International Institute for Sustainable Development, added that a focus on carbon reductions must be matched by greater efforts to adapt to the impacts of climate change. “Mitigation needs to be the priority, but we also need to adapt and prepare for climate change impacts,” he said. “And that will help bring the reality of climate change home to many Canadians, as we wrap our heads around what adaptation and climate change really mean to our communities and ecosystems.”
B-Corp entrepreneur Mike Gifford urged the new government to use its considerable purchasing power to drive the private sector toward decarbonization. “Green innovation is great, but we need incentives for business owners to be more environmentally friendly,” he said. “The federal government is Canada’s biggest buyer, and they can lead the way by declaring that any carbon neutral supplier will have an advantage over other businesses.” While green performance will never be the only criterion for federal procurement, he added, “it should be considered, and right now it’s not on the agenda at all.”