The outcome of the latest United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) was both promising and disappointing. Developing countries celebrated an agreement to build a loss and damage fund for countries that face the harshest climate disasters, including droughts, floods and rising seas. However, no real progress was made to phase out fossil fuels while lobbyists dominated key delegations, including the Canadian one.
In the wake of COP27, it has become clear that global multilateral efforts have largely failed to mitigate climate change. This leaves individual countries to do the work themselves. What does this mean for Canada?
At a recent roundtable hosted by Women and Inclusivity in Sustainable Energy Research (WISER), panelists highlighted that the outcome of COP27 also reflects the reality of climate policy in Canada. While some positive steps have been taken, including a recent national climate adaptation strategy, Canada has never met a single one of its target and there is no guaranteed path to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
Moreover, Canadians are facing multiple other problems that appear to pit climate action against their day-to-day well-being. Top of mind for many is the affordability crisis and the effects of global inflation with prices for food, gas and housing rising earlier this year, despite some relief lately. Essential public systems such as health care remain in crisis. Meanwhile, fear has been harnessed by the political right with what some critics are calling “reckless” populist messaging.
Emerging forms of politics, what University of Regina professor Emily Eaton referred to as “extractive populism,” amplify narratives from individuals with significant ties to the fossil fuel industry. Both Eaton and University of British Columbia political scientist Kathryn Harrison suggested that the fossil fuel industry’s power and influence have made it unthinkable for Canadian politicians to try to wind down the oil and gas industry.
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Yet, we know the world is moving away from oil as a primary resource. If Canada doesn’t want to lose out, serious consideration must be given to economic alternatives and what is required to ensure no one is left behind in the transition.
In light of these challenges, what is needed to jump start climate and energy policy after COP 27? Here are four key messages.
1. Shift government spending to pursue change
Economic planning and public sector investment are essential for a just and sustainable energy transition. In the present policy landscape, it can appear irresponsible to rely solely on spending. Instead, government spending priorities will need to shift.
An obvious starting place is fossil fuel subsidies. Natural Resources Canada recently announced a phase out of international fossil fuel subsidies in 2023. Despite this, the bulk of federal spending on fossil fuels is domestic, where there remains little progress. In 2022, Environmental Defence, a Canadian environmental advocacy organization, estimated there is more than $18 billion in federal support to the fossil fuel industry.
Other policies framed as climate change end up supporting the fossil fuel industry. Environmental Defence program manager Aliénor Rougeot argued that government spending should not support subsidies for costly and unproven technologies such as carbon capture, utilization and storage and use (CCUS). Further spending on these programs that entrench fossil fuel use should not be encouraged.
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2. Offer possibilities to better lives
Climate policies have the potential to be less contentious if they offer the possibility to improve quality of life or are linked to other important societal concerns such as health, waste reduction, or improving local air quality. Ontario is an example of how concerns about air pollution were harnessed to support the phasing out of coal use in that province.
One avenue is through policy support for a circular economy, with the potential to address supply chain concerns while tackling emissions. A second opportunity lies with community-owned renewable energy projects for local ownership of energy services.
A spending shift should draw on government resources to develop new Crown corporations to create long-term jobs in renewables and other cleaner sectors. These could play an integral role in developing the infrastructure and services needed in the transition – for example retrofitting homes and supporting public transit expansion. Attention should also be paid to the “losers” when fossil fuel subsidies are eliminated. These are the communities and workers most reliant on oil and gas production. New opportunities must be explicitly provided to these constituents.
3. Power up regulatory capacity
Carbon pricing has been the focus of climate change debates in Canada. Yet as Harrison argued, carbon pricing is increasingly complemented by regulatory action, including a clean electricity standard, methane regulations, zero-emissions vehicles and, perhaps most importantly, a cap on oil and gas emissions.
These regulations require more capacity to develop, implement, enforce and evaluate under tighter timelines, considering our national targets. Though often technocratic, these processes are deeply political and require public pressure to prevent industry actors from weakening them. This is particularly important, given that provincial approaches to regulation vary widely.
4. Build trust with credible solutions
Some politicians have recently blamed climate policy for exacerbating Canada’s affordability crisis. Rougeot said this is an effective message when there are declining levels of trust in the public sector and rising income inequality. Panelists underscored a need to enhance trust with diverse segments of the Canadian population to engender support for climate action.
For instance, while new policies support owners of single-family homes when they switch heating from oil and gas to electric heat pumps, no such similar policy exists for multi-unit buildings, including in the rental housing sector. Addressing the policy needs of this group – such as renters who make up more than 30 per cent of Canadians – will benefit everyone.
Aligning Canada’s energy system with a pathway to net-zero by 2050 in a way that promotes justice and inclusivity is deeply political work. Multilateral climate governance cannot do this work for us. Wishful thinking about using carbon credits to justify expanding fossil fuel production is not the answer either.
Given the political complexities and challenges associated with accelerating its low carbon energy transition, Canada must be strategic in advancing climate and energy policies. This means building trust, broadening coalitions, enhancing regulatory capacity and shifting government spending to re-energize efforts.
This article is based on a discussion held as part of a wider symposium series sponsored by WISER, the Smart Prosperity Institute (SPI) and Women in Renewable Energy (WiRE) Canada to diversify conversations in Canada and abroad on how to best move forward on sustainable and just energy transitions. This discussion focused on “Policy Change for Energy Transitions” in the Canadian context. Panelists also included Colleen Kaiser, a post-doctoral fellow with the University of Ottawa. The moderator was the chair of WISER, Sarah E. Sharma, an assistant professor at the University of Victoria.