Report card on climate action: U of T experts analyze Canada's challenges and successes

Photo of factory
Smoke billows out of a paper mill in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. (photo by Billy Wilson via Flickr)

With COP22 – the UN's climate summit in Marrakech – ending today, a group of researchers in Canada has issued a report on our country’s progress in implementing climate actions at home.

Four University of Toronto experts are part of Sustainable Canada Dialogues, the voluntary initiative of 60 researchers that issued the report.

Liat Margolis is associate professor of landscape architecture at the John H. Daniels Faculty of  Architecture, Landscape & Design. John Robinson is a professor at the School of the Environment in the Faculty of Arts & Science. Matthew Hoffmann is a professor of political science at U of T Scarborough. Steven Bernstein is a political science professor at U of T Mississauga. Robinson, Hoffmann and Bernstein are also affiliated with U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

The group is “cautiously positive” about Canada’s climate policies in the past year on the heels of the Paris Agreement. But the report says that, despite positive steps forward, the federal government has been unable to develop a comprehensive plan because it won’t address fossil fuels.

Margolis and Robinson spoke to U of T News about the report and how Canada needs to address climate change. 

Read the full report

How is Canada doing in terms of its climate change policy?

Liat Margolis: Canada’s federal government has taken two important steps forward on domestic climate policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions: pricing carbon and investing in low-carbon infrastructure. This progress, however, is undermined by the decision to approve the Pacific Northwest liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, which is regarded by the Sustainable Canada Dialogues as incompatible with Canada’s worldwide advocacy to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 C. 

Other positive steps taken in the last year by the federal government include the release of the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy, setting up an inter-governmental consultation process that began with the Vancouver declaration, and a renewed engagement with Indigenous peoples, in particular by adopting the UN Declaration on rights of Indigenous peoples.

Despite these critical steps forward, the federal government has been unable, up to this point, to develop a coherent climate action plan, primarily because of its inability to address fossil fuels in a coherent manner.

Recent polls show that 77 per cent of Canadians support a national plan to reach our international targets to reduce emissions. In that regard, the federal government has not responded to the strong support from the public to tackle climate change and increase the level of ambition to accelerate the low carbon transition.

John Robinson: After a long period of inaction on climate change, the federal government has signaled that it takes the issue seriously. As our report card indicates, it is starting to take some positive steps. There are also positive signs in various provinces and cities (the feds can’t do this alone). But there is a long way to go.

What are the successes and the challenges?

Liat Margolis: The decision to put a price on carbon throughout the country starting in 2018 is paramount to curbing emissions. Another major step forward is the $120-billion infrastructure investment plan led by Infrastructure Canada. It exemplifies the federal government’s decision to favour low-carbon infrastructure and has the potential to deliver transformative shifts toward clean energy and robust public transportation. However, its real impact would depend on selecting projects that best contribute to low-carbon and sustainable outcomes. 

The Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS) developed over the last year by Environment and Climate Change Canada is important for its alignment with the United Nations' 17 sustainable development goals and for positioning climate change in the broader context of sustainability. It presents long-term goals, medium-term targets, and short-term milestones as well as evaluation criteria to assess progress. Another positive aspect was the broad public consultation process, which allowed for feedback and served as a way to draw attention to climate change challenges. 

The Vancouver Declaration initiated an inter-governmental consultation process on four topics: clean technology, innovation and jobs, carbon pricing mechanisms, specific mitigation opportunities, adaptation and climate resilience. This process is helping to mobilize sub-national governments and Indigenous leaders together with the federal government on climate action while addressing the different social, economic and political realities across provinces, territories and cities. The broad consultation is allowing different regions to explore a diversity of solutions, opening room for creativity, mutual learning and cooperation.

And finally, Canada’s adoption of the UN Declaration on rights of Indigenous peoples is an important step in the right direction. As Canada confronts the challenges posed by renewable energies, future resource extraction, and industrial development, Indigenous sovereignty and Indigenous governance are defining issues. The hope is that Canada ensures that the low-carbon energy transition respects Indigenous territorial rights and their special socio-economic and cultural circumstances.

Despite this progress, Prime Minister Trudeau’s decision to approve the Pacific Northwest liquefied natural gas (LNG) project puts into question Ottawa’s commitment to meaningfully tackle climate change. The impact assessment indicates that this LNG project would be one of the largest point source of emissions in Canada and would increase BC’s emissions by 8.5 per cent. Continued development of projects with high greenhouse gas emissions will compromise progress in other sectors. It will prevent Canada from meeting its emissions reduction target for 2030 and is incompatible with Canada’s goal to help limit global temperature increases to 1.5 C.

John Robinson: Climate change has been a difficult problem for governments to act strongly on: a long term issue, very diffused impacts in the short term, focused costs of action in particular sectors with strong political influence, ideological conflict about the issue, etc.

In Canada this has been coupled with resistance, on the part of some governments to recognizing that the problem is real and serious.

Fortunately, some of the benefits of strong climate action (benefits for other environmental and social issues, the emerging outlines of a post-carbon economy, potential leadership in renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies, etc.) are becoming more apparent.

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