In the first moments of last week’s speech from the throne, which outlined the priorities of the federal government for the next session of Parliament, Governor General Julie Payette laid out in stark terms the challenge before us.
“Rarely ... has all of humanity faced a single common insidious enemy,” she said. “An invisible enemy that respects no borders, thrives anywhere, hits anyone.”
Overcoming this challenge, she continued, “requires the work and resolve of every order of government, every community, and every one of us.”
And that work won't be led by partisan politicians or corporations or community leaders. No, she assured us, “we trust science to lead the fight.”
The challenge to which the governor general referred is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. But you’d be forgiven for thinking she was talking about something else.
After all, there is a second “common insidious enemy” out there. It too is “an invisible enemy that respects no borders.” Overcoming it “requires the work and resolve of every order of government, every community, and every one of us.” And to have any chance of coming out on top we need science to “lead the fight.”
That enemy is climate change. The very same enemy that the House of Commons identified as a “real and urgent crisis” as part of its declaration of a national climate emergency in June 2019.
Yet climate change was an obvious afterthought in this speech. It merited only a handful of mentions, most of which came after more than half an hour of addressing other priorities.
If there is anything the COVID crisis has taught us, it is that we must act quickly and decisively in the face of serious threats to our health, security and wellbeing. Climate change is a genuine existential threat. So while the government’s immediate focus on COVID-19 is both appropriate and necessary, we cannot afford to put climate issues on the backburner. Instead, we must move to address both simultaneously.
That’s not to say there was no good news for climate action in the speech from the throne. A promise to invest in energy efficiency retrofits is a win-win for reducing energy consumption while creating green jobs. A commitment to zero-emission vehicles will help clean up our highly-polluting transportation sector while supporting the domestic resource and manufacturing industries. And a recognition of the need for climate change adaptation, including through the protection of nature, is an important step for ensuring Canadians’ long-term wellbeing.
Provided these initiatives and others named in the speech receive robust funding in the government’s next budget, they will incentivize lower-emission consumer behaviour and enable a more climate-resilient economy. After all, a new report from researchers at Queen’s University estimates the cost of meeting our 2030 emissions target is only $128 billion over 10 years, well within the capacity of a federal government that has just spent north of $300 billion on its COVID-19 response in less than 10 months.
Unfortunately, climate change is not a problem that can be solved entirely through new spending on things like electric vehicles or building retrofits. Put simply, it does not matter how efficiently we use energy or how sustainable some sectors of our economy are as long as we fail to reduce our total greenhouse gas emissions in absolute terms.
The earth doesn’t care how hard we tried.
And the principal source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada is the production and consumption of fossil fuels—a difficult reality that received not a single mention in the speech from the throne.
Unless and until we have a plan for phasing out oil and gas production, which accounts for 26% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, there is no way for the country to meet its long-term GHG targets. We must also reckon with all of the internal combustion engine vehicles currently on the road, especially highly-polluting commercial vehicles, which together account for another 25% of Canadian emissions. Adding more zero-emission vehicles to the mix doesn’t cancel out all those gas-burning cars and trucks.
We face other structural challenges. Sprawling, car-dependent suburbs exacerbate the costs and limitations of public transportation. Aging, north-south power grids limit the potential of interprovincial, decentralized renewable energy. Heavy industrial processes like steel and cement production, which are necessary for the low-carbon transition, remain emissions-intensive and exposed to international competitors who face lower standards. Agriculture faces similar challenges.
None of these issues appear to be on the government’s radar—at least in any meaningful way—even as they promise to exceed Canada’s 2030 GHG target and put us on a path to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
Achieving a net-zero carbon economy by mid-century is essential if Canada is to do its part in mitigating climate change. However, getting there will require much heavier sticks than the government appears willing to employ.
As the governor general said last week, “it is no small task to build a stronger, more resilient country.”
It is time to make some hard choices.
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.