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OPINION: Canadian climate policy must facilitate a transition away from fossil fuels

The Paris Agreement is ratified and now the real work begins, argues Concordia’s Damon Matthews
November 21, 2016
By Damon Matthews

“Ambitious Canadian climate leadership is necessary more than ever in North America.” “Ambitious Canadian climate leadership is necessary more than ever in North America.”

Damon Matthews
is a geography, planning and environment professor and Concordia University Research Chair (Climate Science and Sustainability) in the Faculty of Arts and Science.

Following the entry into force of the Paris Agreement on November 4, Matthews co-authored* an op-ed about what it will take for Canada to uphold its commitment to combatting climate change.

The Paris Agreement was ratified earlier this month and is unprecedented amongst international agreements for how quickly it has come into force. This agreement allows each country to decide how it will tackle climate change and requires, as of 2020, regular reporting on progress.

Countries of the world have officially embarked on a global race to implement ambitious climate policies that contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the planetary scale.

This process is not unlike the Olympic Games where countries get together to compare their strengths and performance. If Canada wants to be a medalist in 2020, domestic climate policies must rapidly be adopted to accelerate the low carbon transition.

In this context, Sustainable Canada Dialogues — a network of 60+ scholars from across Canada — produced a progress report on the country’s climate actions over the past year. We analyzed climate decisions made in Ottawa in 2016 in relationship to the 10 policy orientations that we proposed previously in our position paper entitled Acting on Climate Change: Solutions from Canadian Scholars.

Canada took two important steps forward. First, the federal government will price carbon throughout the country starting in 2018. Second, the $120 billion infrastructure investment plan explicitly highlights support for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

This investment plan raises hopes that Canada can make the transition to low carbon development, but its real impact depends on identifying and funding infrastructure projects that best contribute to desired low-carbon and sustainable outcomes.

Despite this progress, the decision to approve the Pacific NorthWest liquefied natural gas (LNG) project is a step backward, casting doubt on the willingness of the federal government 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 British Columbia’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 stated goal to help limit global temperature increases to 1.5oC. Research indeed estimates that, to maintain global temperature increase below 2oC, half of existing gas reserves and one third of existing oil ones must remain unused.

Canadian climate policy must tackle the most difficult question: how to transition away from fossil fuels? We call for federal political leadership that steadily and strategically adopts innovative low-carbon tools to drive future economic growth.

This requires engaging with a broad range of stakeholders from the oil and gas industry, unions, Indigenous peoples, environmental NGOs, the clean technology sector and academia to discuss how to reorient subsidies away from the fossil fuel industry, promote transitions to low-carbon energy, while ensuring that workers from the oil and gas industry can transition their skills to other sectors.

Ambitious Canadian climate leadership is necessary more than ever in North America. Only by working together and building commitment across all sectors will Canada live up to the expectations it rose by joining the High Ambition Coalition in 2015. Despite positive steps, the federal government has been unable so far to develop a coherent climate action plan largely because of its inability to address fossil fuels coherently.

Read the Sustainable Canada Dialogues progress report on climate actions at the federal level, authored by Concordia’s Damon Matthews and more than 60 other scholars from across the country.

*For Sustainable Canada Dialogues: Catherine Potvin, McGill University; Sally Aitken, University of British Columbia; François Anctil, Université Laval; Elena Bennett, McGill University; Fikret Berkes, University of Manitoba; Steven Bernstein, University of Toronto; Nathalie Bleau, Ouranos; Bryson Brown, University of Lethbridge; Sarah Burch, University of Waterloo; Jim Byrne, University of Lethbridge; Irena Creed, Western University; Ashlee Cunsolo, Memorial University; Ann Dale, Royal Roads University; Deborah de Lange, Ryerson University; Bruno Dyck, University of Manitoba; Martin  Entz, University of Manitoba; Jose Etcheverry, York University; Adam Fenech, University of Prince Edward Island; Lauchlan Fraser, Thompson Rivers University; Irene Henriques, York University; Andreas Heyland, Guelph University; George Hoberg, University of British Columbia; Meg Holden, Simon Fraser University; Matthew Hoffmann, University of Toronto; Gordon Huang, University of Regina; Aerin Jacob, University of Victoria; Sébastien Jodoin, McGill University; Alison Kemper, Ryerson University; Marc Lucotte, Université de Québec à Montréal; Ralph Matthews, University of British Columbia; Damon Matthews, Concordia University; Ian Mauro, University of Winnipeg; Liat Margolis, University of Toronto; Jeffrey, McDonnell, University of Saskatchewan; James Meadowcroft, Carleton University; Christian Messier, Université de Québec en Outaouais; Martin Mkandawire, Cape Breton University; Catherine Morency, Polytechnique Montréal; Normand Mousseau, Université de Montréal; Ken Oakes, Cape Breton University; Sally Otto, , University of British Columbia; Pamela Palmater, Ryerson University; Taysha SPalmerKnowledge Transfer Consultant; Dominique Paquin, Ouranos; Anthony Perl, Simon Fraser University; André Potvin, Université Laval; Ciara Raudsepp-Hearne, Consultant; Howard Ramos, Dalhousie University; John Robinson, University of Toronto; Stephen Sheppard, University of British Columbia; Suzanne Simard, University of British Columbia; Brent Sinclair, Western University; Natalie Slawinski, Memorial University; Mark Stoddart, Memorial University; Shauna Sylvester, Simon Fraser University; Marc-André Villard, Université du Québec à Rimouski; Claude Villeneuve, Université du Québec à Chicoutimi; Sonia Wesche, University of Ottawa.


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