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Five ways the Biden presidency could change Canadian climate policy for the better

November 12, 2020

4-minute read

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is an unabashedly moderate politician. During the Democratic Party primaries last year he often found himself on the defensive as more progressive candidates challenged his record and his priorities, including on climate change.

Yet after securing his party’s nomination this spring en route to winning the presidential election, Biden brought many of those progressive critics on board—including Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—to work on his climate platform.

The result is Biden’s “Clean Energy Revolution”, a plan that shares many core tenets of a Green New Deal, including trillions of dollars in new public investment and a host of ambitious legislative and regulatory measures intended to reduce the production and consumption of climate-disrupting fossil fuels.

What does U.S. environmental policy mean for Canada? A lot, actually. From clean energy to carbon pricing to environmental regulations, the success of many Canadian climate policies depends on coherence and cooperation with our neighbour and closest ally. And where the U.S. leads, it is much easier for Canada to follow.

Biden’s agenda faces a variety of political and economic obstacles, so there is no guarantee his climate plan will become reality. But if he is even partially successful, here are five ways that the “most ambitious climate platform of any presidential candidate in history” could change Canadian climate policy for the better.

1. Biden’s plan could energize Canada’s international climate agenda Climate change is a global collective action problem that requires every country to do its part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When one country drags its feet, especially one as big and powerful as the United States, it becomes politically and logistically harder for every other country to take action, including Canada.

Biden’s plans to rejoin the Paris Agreement, convene a world climate summit, pursue a worldwide ban on fossil fuel subsidies, and seek an agreement to reduce international aviation and marine shipping emissions send an important message to the rest of the world: climate change is a serious problem, it can only be solved collectively, and we are prepared to do our part.

With the U.S. on side, Canada can afford to push for more ambitious global climate action at the United Nations, World Trade Organization, G7 and elsewhere.

2. Biden’s plan could accelerate the growth of Canada’s clean economy Biden has pledged to achieve a net-zero carbon U.S. economy by 2050. Doing so will require an unprecedented public investment—his initial commitment is $1.7 trillion over 10 years—into the development and deployment of new clean technologies, including renewable energy generation and the electrification of transportation, industry and buildings.

In last month’s throne speech Canada also pledged to achieve a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. The task is daunting but essential and will be made significantly easier while the U.S. pursues the same goal. We stand to benefit from cheaper and better low-carbon products, such as zero-emission vehicles, not to mention the massive potential market for Canadian designers and manufacturers of clean technologies.

3. Biden’s plan could curb Canadian fossil fuel infrastructure Achieving carbon neutrality requires more than the ramping up of new clean energy. It also requires the winding down of dirty fossil fuels.

Although Biden has waffled on the specifics—his refusal to address natural gas fracking is a particular sore spot—the president-elect has made it clear that the oil industry will be phased out in the coming decades.

Among other specific policies, such as banning offshore arctic drilling, Biden does not support the Keystone XL pipeline, which is intended to ship Canadian oil sands crude to U.S. refineries. Despite Canada’s “unwavering” support for the project, there is little that can be done if construction is cancelled on the other side of the border.

The forthcoming shift in U.S. energy policy may be the final nail in the coffin for Canada’s reeling and regressive oil industry. We needed to phase out oil and gas production anyway. U.S. climate action will make it easier.

4. Biden’s plan could strengthen Canada’s carbon pricing system One of the biggest challenges in implementing a carbon pricing system is avoiding “carbon leakage” as heavy emitters relocate to jurisdictions with weaker environmental rules. Biden’s pledge to “make domestic polluters bear the full cost of their carbon pollution” is good news for Canada’s own pollution pricing system and for Canada’s emissions-intensive and trade-exposed industries, such as steel production, that compete directly with U.S. firms.

The Democrats’ platform also includes a border carbon adjustment that would effectively apply a carbon price to imported goods, further benefiting Canadian exporters that meet the U.S. standard.

The political hurdles to a U.S. carbon pricing system are greater than for any other policy on this list. But even if Biden can’t get this platform plank through the Senate in the near term, he will likely support efforts to implement and enhance pricing systems at the state level.

5. Biden’s plan could enhance Canadian environmental regulations In contrast to carbon pricing and clean energy investment, which require the collaboration of other branches of government, Biden can quickly and unilaterally pursue more stringent environmental regulations through executive order. He has planned to aggressively reverse hundreds of environmental rollbacks by the previous administration and introduce new fuel efficiency and energy efficiency standards.

The Canadian government and business lobbies embraced deregulation by the previous administration as an opportunity to speed up the harmonization of Canadian and U.S. regulations and standards in a number of areas, including food safety. Where Biden proposes higher standards and better protections, Canada would be wise to voluntarily meet them—in the interests of the environment, consumer and worker safety and fair trade.

No more excuses For the past four years, a recalcitrant U.S. administration provided cover for Canadian politicians to water down and delay climate policies. With Biden in the White House, the situation may be reversed. Even if the new president only achieves a portion of his ambitious climate agenda, Canada risks falling behind in the transition to a net-zero carbon economy.

Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood is a senior researcher on international trade and climate policy for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Follow Hadrian on Twitter @hadrianmk.

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