Greening Canada?: Energy and Climate Policy in the 2020 Throne Speech

12 Min Read

October 23, 2020

Each session of Canada’s Parliament opens with a Speech from the Throne, which provides an overview of the state of the nation and outlines the government’s current policy priorities. This year's Throne Speech was more important than most, given the enormous challenges the country faces, which include the impact of COVID-19 on public health and the economy, and the need to produce a response to the climate crisis.

The challenge of COVID-19 has provided the governing Liberals with unexpected political opportunities. The federal government’s relatively competent response to the pandemic, the unpopularity of the opposition parties, and the fact that no one wants the confusion of an election right now, created a situation in which a minority government could announce more ambitious programs than it typically might. Many hoped the Liberals would seize this opportunity to enhance existing social programs and create a range of new ones, including environmental policies  amounting to a Canadian Green New Deal.

At first glance, this year’s Throne Speech seemed to feature an ambitious collection of environmental policy pronouncements, promises, and goals. The government announced it will put forward a climate plan to outdo Canada’s 2030 GHG emissions target and so allow it to reach net zero by 2050. It indicated that within five years it would protect 25% of Canada’s land and oceans, as well as expand urban parks in conjunction with municipalities. The government also announced it would create a Canada Water Agency and promised to ban single-use plastics by 2021. Whether any of this will actually come to pass is something critics will need to keep an eye on.

One missing element – a big one – was anything like an overarching plan governing the Liberals’ initiatives. What is currently on display is a hodgepodge of environmental policies that anyone concerned with the environment could sketch on the back of a napkin without thinking very hard about it. But to be effective, policy needs to include clear goals and steps to achieve them. No such thought appears to have been given to this in the Throne Speech, a fact that will no doubt be reflected in the confusing way the above plans will – or will not – be implemented.

There may well be no big plan. But what does link these policy pronouncements is the belief that action on climate change can only be imagined in connection with economic growth. “Climate action will be a cornerstone of our plan to support and create a million jobs across the country,” the Speech proclaims. “This is where the world is going. Global consumers and investors are demanding and rewarding climate action.” There’s nothing wrong per se with linking jobs and the environment. This is, after all, precisely what the moniker Green New Deal aims to accomplish. But how the connection between jobs and the environment is envisioned matters – a lot.

Green jobs are not the only new jobs the Liberals have in mind. Even as it moves towards an imagined green future, the Throne Speech indicates the Canadian present will continue to depend on resource extraction. It notes the government will “support manufacturing, natural resource, and energy sectors as they work to transform to meet a net zero future, creating good-paying and long-lasting jobs.” In discussing the need to introduce new electric vehicles into the auto landscape (and maybe even Canadian made ones) the Liberals proudly announce that Canada’s access to resources such as nickel and copper give it an advantage. Luckily for us, they’re necessary components of vehicle batteries.

There’s nothing wrong per se with linking jobs and the environment. This is, after all, precisely what the moniker Green New Deal aims to accomplish. But how the connection between jobs and the environment is envisioned matters – a lot.

Linking green policy so directly to resource extraction is worrying for obvious reasons. It also isn’t necessary. After a half-century of moving away from a resource-dependent economy, the last fifteen years have witnessed a dangerous new commitment to resources in Canada – and to oil in particular. This is no doubt why going green, even haltingly so, still presumes the need for resource extraction. It’s hard to believe the Liberals don’t see the contradiction in this. The impact of large-scale extraction is why we need to go green, and yet we’re supposed to believe that continued extraction – to make electric vehicles no less! – will help Canada change its colour. As usual, the hard, yet necessary, political and economic decisions are being kicked on down the road for others to deal with.

There is one other thing worth noting about this session’s speech: “Yesterday’s throne speech included 6,783 words,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney noted. “Not one of them was about the largest industry sector in the Canadian economy. Not one of them mentioned our oil and gas sector, which helped to pull Canada through the last global recession. Not one word recognizing the crisis in that sector and in energy-producing provinces like Alberta.” On the one hand, Kenney is wrong: the Speech explicitly mentions the government’s intention to aid the energy sector in its transition to a net zero future. On the other hand, Kenney is right. There was no explicit mention of oil and no naming of support for the oil industry – an ailing one – in its current form.

A comparison of positions stated in a Throne Speech with what any given government actually accomplishes makes for dismal reading. But these speeches do allow civil society groups to call attention to policy missteps and failed commitments. And they also offer away to read which way the political winds are blowing and to gauge shifts in perspective and power that – within the very real limits of existing liberal democracies – may portend what’s coming down the road.

For the Liberals, resource extraction in general seems here to stay. But oil extraction in particular might no longer be worth the political effort, due in no small part to the ongoing opposition of artists, activists, academics, community leaders, and environmentalists to the tar sands and pipeline projects. Given the timidity of the Liberal’s environmental proposals, this barest hint of possibility might be the one thing in the Throne Speech that offers Canadians some small hope that the country might finally, one day, take real action on climate change.

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