Newly elected Canadian leader Justin Trudeau will arrive in office with a promise to improve Canada’s battered environmental image, vowing a new strategy for global climate negotiations in Paris this December.
But delivering policies to match the expectations will be much tougher.
Trudeau has less than 40 days before the Paris conference begins, hardly time for yet-unnamed energy and environment ministers to get up to speed, let alone to forge a common position with Canada’s provinces on carbon emissions cuts.
Yet the Liberal leader has pledged a break from the policies of defeated Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a politician from Alberta’s oil patch who pulled Canada out of the Kyoto treaty and fought to shield the energy industry from global commitments to cut carbon emissions.
During the campaign, Trudeau attacked Harper relentlessly for turning Canada into a “pariah” on climate change issues. He pledged to attend the Paris conference, and then convene the country’s provincial premiers within 90 days to create national emissions targets under a framework that would allow provinces to set a price on carbon.
That party platform had almost no specifics but it raised expectations both domestically and abroad that Trudeau would alter Canada’s course on climate. As votes were still being counted, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore said he hoped the election win would “put Canada back in a leadership position” ahead of the Paris summit.
And a White House spokesman said on Tuesday that, with regard to commitments in Paris, “we believe that it’s possible that there is more that Canada can do in this regard.”
Harper had pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 – though his plan gave few details on how to get there. Critics say Canada’s rising emissions levels means it has almost no chance of meeting the goal.
Sources close to the climate negotiations say the United States and the European Union have both told the Canadian government privately that Harper’s target was not ambitious enough.
“We’ll have to come up with something concrete to put on the table (in Paris), for sure,” said Justin Trudeau adviser Robert Asselin, who gave no details.
The test will be bringing others along. Justin Trudeau has promised a more cooperative working relationship with lower levels of government, unlike Harper who avoided the habitual messiness of those negotiations by avoiding them altogether.
But trying to get a united voice on carbon cuts from Canada’s 10 provinces and three northern territories, which have significant control over resource policies that affect the environment, is daunting.
Energy-rich Alberta remains cautious about moves that could hurt the oil and gas sector, despite a recent change in provincial leadership to a green-friendly New Democratic Party.
The province is the largest source of U.S. crude imports – as well as the fastest growing source of greenhouse gases in Canada – but has laid off thousands of workers in recent months due to slumping crude oil prices.
Meanwhile, the big provinces of Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, have already embarked on ambitious programs to cut emissions.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard complained on Tuesday that the existing 2030 targets are too weak and had been set without consulting the provinces. He argued there is still enough time for Trudeau and the premiers to reach a stronger Canadian position before the Paris summit.
“The world is expecting a change of tone, of priorities and of what (Canada) says on climate change … in Quebec, we’re acting and will continue to act and I expect (Canada) will speak with a more united voice on this issue,” said Couillard.
The world may also discover that Trudeau is not committed to overturning every energy policy of his predecessor.
During the campaign he expressed qualified support for building TransCanada Corp’s Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry heavy oil from Alberta’s oil sands to U.S. refineries. The controversial pipeline has been stalled by the heavily skeptical Obama administration.
Support for Keystone may have helped Trudeau’s party break through to win four seats in Alberta, a province that had been long hostile to the Liberals.
Trudeau says the proposed Energy East pipeline that would carry Western oil to the Atlantic provinces for export needs community support.
But it is the Paris talks that will likely be the first test of Trudeau’s environmental credentials in office.
Although the Environmental Protection Act gives Ottawa the right to restrict and manage pollution, previous attempts to agree on binding emissions targets had run into arguments over how much credit provinces should be given for green initiatives they were already undertaking.
Environmental analyst John Bennett said unless Trudeau decided to force the provinces to stick to a deal, “he’s going to discover pretty quickly … that everyone will come to meeting and say ‘Yes, we’ll do this’ and go home and then do whatever they like.”