Pandemic Delays Climate Plan Update as Ottawa Mulls Green Recovery Options
A recent wave of policy advocacy aimed at shaping the Canadian government’s green economic stimulus package is beginning to generate media coverage of its own, with the Globe and Mail reporting this week on the “frenzy” now under way “to determine just how—and how much—the federal government’s strategy for economic recovery from the COVID-19 shutdown will be shaped by its climate change agenda.”
Those discussions are gaining momentum while the federal government, still preoccupied with the immediate response to the pandemic, has delayed high-profile plans to strengthen its 2030 carbon reduction target and impose a ban on single-use plastics.
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The government has been signalling since last fall that a faster, tougher response to the climate crisis will be at the heart of its legislative agenda, and more recently, that the billions of dollars in economic stimulus required to drive the post-COVID recovery will be filtered through a green lens. Late last month, La Presse reported that Environment and Climate Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, Infrastructure and Communities Minister Catherine McKenna, and Canadian Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault had been assigned to craft “an economic recovery plan that aims to accelerate the green shift”.
Now, Globe columnist Adam Radwanski says the broad lines of that recovery plan are beginning to emerge from proposals focusing on building retrofits, electric vehicle charging, electrifying public transit, strategic investments in hydrogen and other clean technologies, grid modernization, preparing for post-pandemic lifestyles, and working with cities to reinvent public spaces. While the timing of those investments will depend on the course of a pandemic that is anything but predictable, the stakes for a once-in-forever transition opportunity couldn’t be higher.
“They’re not going to get to do this again,” Smart Prosperity Institute chair Stewart Elgie, director of the University of Ottawa’s environment institute, told the Globe. And missing the moment to make the right investments “will lead to regret a decade from now about Canada’s ‘ability to compete in a changing world’,” Radwanski writes.
Both the opportunity and the concern behind those words have driven a flurry of activity in recent weeks, with green economy specialists and businesses invited by federal ministers and other officials to submit their best ideas by sometime this month, “ideally with metrics for how many jobs and greenhouse gas emissions reductions those initiatives would produce,” Radwanski writes. “That way, the government could assess them in time for a summer rollout of plans to reignite the economy and help make it more sustainable.” Those ideas have been pouring in, with Corporate Knights magazine leading the charge with a series of seven weekly roundtables on key opportunities to build back better after the pandemic.
But while discussions progress, “the Liberals are now trying to dampen expectations for how soon they’ll settle on such policies,” Radwanski adds. “Their message is that, at a stage of the COVID-19 pandemic when it’s still not clear when the economy will truly reopen, they’re still focused on relief policies to get people and businesses through shutdowns, rather than recovery plans to shape the economy on the other side.”
And that means other plans are being derailed, at least temporarily. Last week, Wilkinson said the government’s promises to strengthen the country’s climate targets and ban single-use plastics have been delayed by the pandemic, The Canadian Press reported.
“We’ve continued to work on a number of elements but there are some where we’ve had to delay,” Wilkinson said. As for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s campaign pledge to toughen up Canada’s 2030 carbon reduction target, “my intention is to bring forward the updated climate plan as soon as it is reasonable to do that,” the minister added. “Right now we need to be focused on fighting the virus, but certainly our intention and our commitment to the climate file remains very firm.”
Two items that have been delayed: CP says implementation of the federal Clean Fuel Standard has been shifted from January 2022 to sometime later that year, and draft regulations have been delayed from spring 2020 to fall. A new target date for the plastics ban has yet to be announced.
But even with the delays imposed by the pandemic, Radwanski says Ottawa “will nevertheless have to make enormous decisions quickly,” balancing “the usual short-term imperatives of stimulus spending—getting people back to work and reigniting consumer spending—with seizing an unexpected chance to fundamentally reshape the economy after an unprecedented shutdown.”
Adding to that challenge will be the certain knowledge that “this will be its last opportunity to spend big money on the transition to a low-carbon future that was central to the mandate Mr. Trudeau won from voters last year,” he adds. The PM is certainly setting the stage for that discussion, “framing green stimulus not just as a moral responsibility, but a necessity for economic competitiveness during a period of restraint that will undoubtedly be required after massive deficits accumulated during the pandemic response.”