Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Thoughts on the new Liberal Government and the Environment

Like many interested observers, I was shocked at the size of the Liberal victory in our Canadian election.  I was confident in a Liberal minority but had no clue that the Liberals would end up with a majority. From an environmental perspective the new Liberal majority government should definitely be a step up over the previous Harper government’s anti-science, laissez-faire on the environment agenda. That being said, I am strongly of the belief that a lot of what I have read in the last several days about the Liberals and their environmental policies represent projection on the part of observers rather than an accurate reflection of Liberal policy.
To clarify, one problem with elections campaigns is that the people involved often incorrectly read into their candidates features and characteristics that are not actually part of that candidate’s platform. As such, my concern is that many environmentalists have been reading their personal desires into the Liberal victory. Throughout the last couple years Justin Trudeau has been viewed by many as the “anti-Harper”. He is clearly cut from a very different mold than the outgoing Prime Minister. Mr. Trudeau is viewed as happy and outgoing while Mr. Harper has been seen as dour and secretive. But these personality differences do not make Mr. Trudeau a polar opposite to Mr. Harper. Mr. Trudeau is not the Ying to Mr Harper’s Yang. Rather, Mr. Trudeau is an entirely independent being with his own hopes, needs and desires. To be clear, Mr. Harper’s environmental and science policies could, at best, be considered regressive and as a consequence, the new Liberal government will definitely represent a step forward for the environmental cause in Canada. That being said, I would suggest that my friends in the environmental movement spend a little bit of time reading the Liberal policy documents before they get too excited about the next five years.
The first thing I will point out is that while the environmental community views Mr. Trudeau as a potential environment-first Prime Minister, the Liberal policy platform is a little less supportive of that title. A look at the “Platform” section of the Liberal election web site has 106 topics of which I count six that would represent “environmental” priorities and as the business adage goes “too many priorities means no priorities”.  A look at the Liberal policy backgrounders also does not bode well for “environment-first” title. Of the 29 detailed policy backgrounders presented on their web site only two address topics related to the environment.
The first “protecting our oceans” provides some solid red meat for the environmental cause. It clearly states that a Liberal government will reinstate monies for ocean science and monitoring. It also provides hope that the recent shredding of the Fisheries Act will be reversed. Finally the document pretty much rings the death knell for the Northern Gateway pipeline as it says that a Liberal government would enact the North Coast crude oil tanker ban. Under that blanket prohibition the Northern Gateway would only really be possible if David Black’s Kitimat refinery were brought online to refine the crude oil/dilbit prior to shipping.
The second platform document is bigger than the first but is surprisingly light on substance. The document is titled “A New Plan for Canada’s Environment and Economy” and deals with six major themes:
• Taking Action on Climate Change
• Investing in Clean Technologies
• Creating Clean Jobs and Investment
• Restoring Credibility to Environmental Assessments
• Preserving and Promoting our National Parks
• Protecting out Freshwater and Oceans

As the old expression goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating and the problem with the document, as is often the case in environmental policy, is in the details, or lack thereof. The “Action on Climate Change” reads as surprisingly non-committal on the action front. It has a lot about communication, and working together with various levels of governments and NGOs but has very few identifiable deliverables. It includes a “portfolio of actions” while describing few strong commitments (it does include a very important commitment to phase out subsidies for the fossil fuel industry). Surprisingly, I cannot for the life of me find a detailed policy document that includes any mention of the “Low Carbon Economy Trust” which some have mentioned but few can describe. 

The Liberal’s “Investment in Clean Technologies” details a pretty paltry additional $300 million a year directed towards various industrial sectors. The wording of this section is sufficiently vague that it could range from a terrific tool to enhance the prospects of cutting-edge companies to a political slush fund like many of the regional development agencies used to buy votes for the last several decades.
The “Creating Clean Jobs and Investments” section is simply standard boilerplate that could be drawn from almost every environmental policy document ever written. It does, curiously, include a section on protection of marine environments which is sorely needed, especially on our West Coast.
For the pipeline opponents, the “Restoring Credibility to Environmental Assessments” sounds like a great section. Interestingly enough the section does include this interesting piece of wording:
We will explore, consult, and work collaboratively to move towards a system where federal environmental assessments of projects include an analysis of upstream impacts and the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the projects being assessed.
This text could be something straight out of a Sierra Club Report or it could be a standard requirement for a risk assessment depending on how you interpret the word "resulting". Environmentalists surely read it like the Sierra Club would have us do. The only problem with this interpretation is that it undermines the whole concept that emissions are calculated on where fossil fuels are consumed not on where they are produced. Using the logic proposed I could easily develop a process by which Canada could meet its Kyoto targets overnight. Since the Sierra Club version of the methodology blames the producer of the energy, not the consumer, Canada could go to zero CO2 emissions simply by importing all our fossil fuels from outside our borders. No need to adapt our industry; no need to stop idling our cars or insulate our houses; since the consumer’s pattern of use doesn’t count towards their emissions we would all be free and clear. Oddly enough that is not how the rest of the world views the problem. In International venues/agreements producers of fossil fuels are only expected to account for the energy used to generate the fossil fuels not the  CO2 generated when the fossil fuels are burnt at the other end. I would suggest that any plan to change environmental assessments in this manner is bound to fail international muster.
The final two points involving the protection of our parks, freshwater and oceans are strong policies I would love to see implemented ASAP.
Going back to the earlier point in this post, the problem with the Liberal agenda is that the environment represents such a miniscule proportion of it. Only 2 of 29 policy documents discuss the environment and the amount of money earmarked for the environment is miniscule when compared to other priorities. The $300 million dollars for innovation and investment is barely more than the amount the Liberals have allotted in additional funding for the CBC.  That should pretty much tell you where we, environmentalists, fit in this new order.
To be clear, I look forward to the next few years from an environmental perspective. I was strongly opposed to how the Harper government stripped away protection for Canada’s waterways and shredded much of our environmental research infrastructure. It is my hope that Mr. Trudeau will reverse many of those decisions/laws. That being said, I cannot simply assume that Mr. Trudeau is going to be an environment-first Prime Minister and suggest that my colleagues in the environmental movement who assume otherwise are in for a bad shock.

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