Although the first meeting between Canada’s prime minister and the provincial premiers since 2008 is considered a success, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was left with little room to manoeuvre on the environment and climate change file. While he was urged to demonstrate federal leadership, he was warned not to impose a “one-size-fits-all” policy on the provinces, because many provinces have already adopted widely different and often innovative carbon dioxide and methane emissions mitigation strategies.

What can Trudeau do? He could start by putting the federal government’s house in order. A recent internal memorandum from the Department of Finance revealed that the 2006 federal carbon emission reduction policies would reduce emissions by only 40 megatonnes (Mt) annually. If all Canadian jurisdictions maintain their current policies, Canada will be 116 Mt short of its previous target of reducing total emissions to 20 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2020.

The memorandum also shows that the federal government’s uncoordinated, often ad hoc approach to policy-making on the environment and climate change file has involved a variety of policy instruments – and that is a problem.

The limited impact of such uncoordinated energy and climate change policies has been explored recently using the concept of “policy intensity.” Policy intensity is an index that weights policy instruments according to measures such as whether the instrument has measurable targets, designated budgets, clear objectives and timelines; its integration with larger policy initiatives; and monitoring.

Until recently, many scholars studying policy implementation focused solely on policy “density,” which is no more sophisticated than accounting for the total number of policy instruments. But that measure can be misleading. For example, it would suggest that a large number of weak instruments – such as education campaigns and voluntary agreements – are superior to a small number of far more effective instruments, such as strict regulations and binding agreements. To avoid illusions of this sort, policy intensity must be considered along with policy density. In tandem, these measures allow meaningful comparisons of how countries are performing relative to one another in policy domains such as climate policy.

Evidence produced by policy-intensity research indicates that government performance on climate change correlates with strong policy instruments and well-articulated national strategies of high policy intensity.

Consider three countries with very different reputations on climate change: Germany, Australia and Canada (figure 1). Only in Germany has there been a clear relationship between policy intensity and policy density. Over the same period, Australia and Canada’s policy intensity and policy density diverged. Thus, in 2010 while Germany had a policy density score of 25 and a policy intensity score of 14.47, Canada had a policy density score of 53 and a policy intensity score of 11.5, and Australia had a policy density score of 69 and a policy intensity score of 14.23. What this means is that Australia and Canada both had a higher number of active policy instruments than Germany, but the three countries had similar policy intensity scores.

Boucher figure final


Despite having a much higher number of policy instruments than Germany, Canada and Australia have been criticized globally for their performance on climate change, while Germany has been praised. Our policy-intensity research tool may explain the differences, suggesting that a combination of a low policy density and high policy intensity strikes the right balance for taking effective action on climate change. The success of Germany and the failure of Australia is just one example of how the relationship between policy density and policy intensity can provide lessons for Canada.

Germany’s Energiewende, its national energy transition strategy, demonstrates a commitment to environmental protection that is both ambitious and feasible. To illustrate, in the 1990s Germany’s federal government developed a national feed-in-tariff program that garnered support from the Länder (the 16 federal states in Germany) and the general public. German environmental policies are made primarily by the Länder, which is noteworthy because of the coordination involved at the federal level. Federal leadership has enabled the Länder to create their own policies to fit into the national strategy. Canada can draw lessons from the German federation.

High policy intensity is achieved because all levels of government are coordinated. Moreover, the national strategy uses policy instruments with clear objectives, emissions targets, budgets and monitoring. In short, central oversight by the German federal government has been vital to the success of the country’s climate change policy outcomes.

Despite a wide range of aspirational policy documents over the past decade, the Australian federal government has historically failed to take action against climate change. But as the chart shows, it is not for lack of policies. It’s rather that the policies are weak and uncoordinated. Like Canadian provinces, Australian states can formulate their own energy and climate change policies. Lacking strategic direction, these instruments tend not to complement one another, but instead form environmental policy that is dense and ineffective. The costly result is inaction on climate change.

Past Canadian federal governments have failed to lead the nation with a strategic plan on climate change. As a result, other jurisdictions have had to formulate their own policies without the benefit of federal coordination. Canada’s premiers did just that when they met in the summer of 2015 to formulate a national energy strategy without representation from the federal government, which refused to get involved. The consensus nature of the Council of the Federation requires cooperation and agreement. Each jurisdiction has its own range of energy and climate change portfolios, which makes a “bottom up” approach problematic. On climate and energy policy, strong federal leadership is essential to forging a pathway forward. As the experiences of Australia and Germany indicate, if Canada is serious about tackling climate change, it needs a federal leadership strategy that is coordinated, focused and consistent.

There are two caveats to our analysis. First, federalism is by its very nature complex. While it is often difficult to draw lessons from other federal contexts, taking the time to look outside Canada’s borders, as we have done here, provides valuable insights. Second, more evidence is required in the energy and climate-change policy domain. Research into policy intensity provides a new way to understand the effectiveness of national energy strategies; however, the concept of policy intensity and its measurement techniques need further refinement.

Now that Canada is at a policy crossroads on energy and climate change, will the new federal government take a leadership role moving forward? Although taking such a role means Prime Minister Trudeau and the newly appointed Mister of Environment and Climate Change would be at the head of the table, the federal government would also become a collaborator, thereby uniting the provinces on climate change policy.

Colten Goertz
Colten Goertz is a master of public policy candidate researching fiscal federalism policy-making and the Canada health transfer at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan.
Kelechi Nwanekezie
Kelechi Nwanekezie is a doctoral student researching strategic-thinking in energy sector decision-making in the Department of Geography and Planning, University of Saskatchewan.
Martin Boucher
Martin Boucher is a doctoral student researching sustainable energy pathways and socio-technical systems at the School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan.
Miranda Gouchie
Miranda Gouchie is a master of public policy candidate researching place-based policy-making and problem structuring at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan.
Tyler Koebel
Tyler Koebel is a master of public policy candidate researching public perceptions of risk toward controversial technologies at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, University of Saskatchewan.

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