Climate Change in Canada: Intersections of Law and Politics

Tristan E. Masson: Tristan is an undergrad student in Political Science and Sustainability Studies at Concordia University. He currently sits on the Board of Directors of Sustainable Concordia.

Due to the global dimension required for the success of collective action on climate change, the scope of analysis is often not confined to the boundaries of a single state. However, the picture is incomplete without due consideration of the internal dynamics of a country. Climate change policy remains politically precarious in Canada, and these tensions are aggravated by the need to navigate the federal nature of the Canadian political system.

An aerial view of an extraction site in the area of Fort McMurray, Alberta. Attribution: Greenpeace/Jiri Bezac, Tarsands

Even before becoming Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals committed to climate action and international multilateralism to this effect in their election campaign platform. The Prime Minister’s enthusiasm was aptly epitomized when he emphatically announced to a crowd of CoP21 delegates: “Canada’s back, and here to help”.

Perhaps to the dismay of many, public policy is not so simple. Given Canada’s democratic and not dictatorial approach to politics, one should take the PM’s words with a grain of salt, or, to adapt the proverb, a drop of oil.

Last November the PM approved two pipeline projects while rejecting a third. More recently, President Trump confirmed that he would consider the construction of Keystone XL, a decision “welcomed” by PM Trudeau.

This should come as no surprise given the broader economic context. Canada’s economic bread and butter, as it were, has historically been to rely on staple resource commodities with an export-led growth strategy. With the days of the fur trade long behind us, Canada’s most significant resource commodity is energy—a pattern countries endowed with abundant energy followed in the 20th century.

By one measure, fossil fuel products as a proportion of exports have passed from little over five percent in 1997 to one-fifth of all exports in 2011. In comparison other exports, energy products have been the most significant export product of the last five years.

Unsurprisingly, the three most carbon-intensive sectors are oil and gas, transportation and electricity. One can see immediately the interconnection of the three, for the fossil fuel sector feeds the other two (and many more). With this in mind, coupled with the fact that the vast majority of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy sector, climate change mitigation efforts are best to focus on scaling back emissions-heavy energy forms and energy efficiency. For Canada, the burning question is simple but challenging: how do we contract the most significant sector in the economy while avoiding immediate economic downturn and an economy-wide ripple effect?

This political and policy dilemma is made more complex in Canada due to the federal nature of our political system, where legal jurisdiction is shared between two levels of government each sovereign over their respective spheres of powers. The current tenor of the climate debate accepts that effective policy will inevitably overlap these jurisdictional divisions, thus requiring both federal and provincial cooperation and assent.

Canada’s Premiers and Prime Minister jointly announce the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Energy and Climate, December 9th 2016. Attribution: Équiterre, The Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change

Canada’s Premiers and Prime Minister responded with the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change. The framework includes an investment strategy and new regulation spanning across sectors. However, we must note what is missing: the signatures of the provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It’s also worth underscoring that Alberta’s NDP government, the only party favourable to such initiatives in the province, will be in a precarious position come next election. As a matter of fact, Premier Notley’s actions on climate change have already sparked howls from the Alberta opposition. Federally, many MPs in the Conservative Party of Canada caucus, as well as contenders for its leadership, have taken issue with the carbon price—a centerpiece to the policy.

We’re often reminded that environmental issues can’t be solved in one day’s work, and in the case of climate change this rings true even across generations of collective action. A political dilemma that is inherently complex becomes only more fraught and precarious when navigating the legal terrain of Canada’s federal political system. While the momentum has swung towards greater action, we must expect the pendulum to swing back. When this occurs, the result will not so much resemble the Tragedy of the Commons, but rather the inevitable conflicts that stems from the intersection of law and politics.


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