Justin Trudeau’s Promise of a Greener Future Is Crashing Against His Climate Inaction

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have long promised aggressive action on climate change, but a recent report suggests that Canada is falling way short. The country needs a pro-worker, green transition now.

The Trudeau government’s latest climate plan aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 45 percent by 2030, with a final goal of net zero emissions by 2050. (Lovers Lounge / Flickr)

Canada is on track to miss another of its climate targets. Nearing seven years in government, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have drifted far from the climate triumphalism of their early days in office. Sure, they’re better than their Conservative rivals — they are at least making an effort. But it is not nearly enough. Whatever the preferred state narrative, the data suggests bad news ahead.

A scoop by reporter Marieke Walsh in the Globe and Mail outlines how the Trudeau government’s plan to reduce emissions in the oil and gas industry by 2030 is on track for ignominious failure. The plan is projected to reach roughly just half of the promised 81-megatonne reduction. The government report cited by the Globe suggests that while the target could be met, it’s a long shot. As Walsh writes, the report notes the goal is “technically feasible,” though only with “extraordinary efforts.” Efforts by whom, one wonders. The answer, evidently, is government and industry — exactly the same parties who, thus far, have proved incapable of delivering ordinary efforts on climate targets.

Old Wine in New Bottles

The Trudeau government is betting that industry will step up to hit the reduction target. It appears to believe that it can navigate any blowback from oil and gas provinces such as Alberta. It is also happy to put enormous faith into unproven, expensive technology like carbon capture and storage in order to make up any gaps left between a willingness to promise and a capacity to deliver. None of these strategies have worked in the past. The master plan seems to be less about hitting climate targets and more about challenging the old adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

However, a missed target is better than no target, and Canada is certainly not the only country in the world to overpromise and underdeliver. Indeed, that play is the global norm. The Climate Action Tracker shows that the efforts of most states fall short — or well short — of Paris Agreement targets. In fact, not a single country is on track to meet the agreement’s targets. Canada’s efforts, however, stand out for their “highly insufficient” rating. Sadly, for a country that never meets its climate goals, it is hardly surprising.

Canadians are notorious carbon emitters. Some of the worst in the world, in fact. In 2018, the world average of metric tonnes per capita was 4.5 — Canadians, meanwhile, emitted 15.5 tonnes. Canada’s oil and gas sector, whose emissions rose by 74 percent from 1990 to 2020, is a major league polluter. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, the sector was the largest emitter in 2020, “accounting for 27 percent of total national emissions with 179 megatonnes or carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2 eq) emitted.”

Talking a big game on climate is good politics for the most part. In the spring, amid economic woes and a pandemic that simply won’t end, the environment remained a ranking public concern. Extreme weather events, like a devastating storm in Ontario in May — the country’s sixth most expensive natural disaster ever — are becoming more common, and people are increasingly willing to accept the need to take on climate change. But while extreme weather events keep the issue front of mind, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite, as of yet, for punishing governments who don’t do enough to mitigate and adapt for what’s coming. This may change soon.

Mobilizing for a Green Transition

In 2020, Seth Klein argued in his book A Good War that Canada ought to mobilize to fight climate change like it did for World War II. The threat of climate change requires government and industry to behave as if they were responding to an existential threat. Only a massive mobilization across sectors and a willingness to change how we do things can get us where we need to be on climate policy. This will mean items that are normally anathema, such as full employment and remaking the economy, must be on the table. Only with measures normally undertaken in war can the tremendous requirements needed for a rapid transition not result in massive pain and suffering.

Canada and the world are still somehow grappling with an idea that should be simple, even intuitive: to address the greatest challenge in human history, we need to make extraordinary changes. And those changes will mean living, moving, eating, drinking, producing, and consuming in different ways from what we have become used to, especially in rich states. However, these changes do not need to be the immiserating clampdowns they will be if we wait too long. We can head off this existential threat by transforming the workforce, creating jobs, and reducing inequality in the very act of carrying out our climate obligations.

In the years since Klein wrote the book, things have not improved, and no widespread mobilization appears to be on the horizon. The 2022 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change once again sounded the alarm on the coming global peril. Despite pledges and promises, global emissions are up. The UN secretary general recently warned that the time is “now or never” to keep warming to 1.5 degrees. With Canada on track to miss another target, it appears that the Trudeau Liberals have chosen never.

We Are the Cavalry

The Trudeau government’s latest climate plan aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 45 percent by 2030, with a final goal of net zero emissions by 2050. This time around, there will be independent check-ins and evaluations. But to what end? Moral suasion? Punishment by voters if the targets are missed? Another reminder that the country isn’t doing enough fast enough? At this point, as the world heads towards three degrees of warming, it’s hard to be anything but pessimistic — counterproductive as that may be.

Canadians ought to demand better on climate from their government, just as they ought to prepare to work toward a global cause that requires extraordinary efforts. But the core of such efforts must be structural sectoral change and massive mobilization to forestall climate catastrophe.

With such an approach, we can maintain good standards of living while ensuring every Canadian can enjoy them, but only if we act now — and act like there’s no tomorrow. This change should not be paid for only by states — through taxpayer revenue — but by the companies who have for years extracted value from labor and the environment without paying the true cost of that extraction.

The Canadian government ought to be merciless in its pursuit of emissions reductions in the oil and gas sector. And citizens ought to hold it to account for both its failures in setting adequate targets and delivering on inadequate ones. Our lives depend upon it.