An Earth Day message

By Murray Rankin, MP, April 2015

Harper’s indifference to climate change could mean Canada will lose the opportunity for clean energy investment and jobs.

In 2010, the House of Commons passed a landmark bill, legislating binding greenhouse gas reductions to meet targets set at Kyoto and establishing Canada as an international leader in arresting climate change. This is no dream––it happened. 

Called “an essential piece of legislation” by Sierra Club Canada, the Climate Change Accountability Act was built on scientific assessments of the emissions reductions needed to hold global temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius and avert runaway climate change. Under the bill, Parliament required Canada to reduce emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Introduced by the late NDP leader Jack Layton nine years ago, it was then, and remains today, the only piece of federal legislation ever to mandate reductions in greenhouse gases. Working across party lines, New Democrats earned the support of every opposition party in Parliament. So, what went wrong?

Passed resoundingly by the House of Commons, the bill was killed by unelected senators. Stephen Harper didn’t then hold a majority in either chamber, but the momentary absence of a few Liberal senators provided an opening. In a snap vote, the bill was defeated. It was only 11 senators that prevented us from rising to meet the defining challenge of our time. It’s a defeat that has cost Canadians five wasted years without federal government leadership on climate change.

On Earth Day 2015, let us think carefully about the choice Canada faces this year. Weeks after the federal election expected in October of this year, the world will gather in Paris to hammer out a new climate treaty. Among much else, this election will decide which candidate sits at that table as our Prime Minister.

To understand the depth of Stephen Harper’s indifference, consider that in 2013 his government failed to spend $321 million budgeted by Parliament for “environmentally responsible” programs, while significantly overspending the $438 million targeted to fossil fuels. And while spending hardly any of $22 million budgeted for satellite monitoring of land and water conditions in oil-producing regions, the Conservatives spent $24 million advertising Keystone XL and the oil sands in major US cities. Governing is a question of priorities.

Laid out again in the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the risks of inaction are clear, dire and potentially irreversible. Heat waves will become longer and more frequent, threatening food security. Extreme precipitation will become more intense, causing devastating floods. Ocean acidification from atmospheric carbon will threaten more than a billion people who rely on fish as their main source of protein. Desertification and rising seas could uproot tens of millions worldwide by 2050.

Updated with the latest scientific assessments, the Climate Change Accountability Act is now back in Parliament under the leadership of Tom Mulcair. The world needs Canada to bring a serious plan to Paris. This bill is our blueprint.

Are such reductions possible? The answer is a resounding yes, confirmed again in a March 2015 report by more than 60 Canadian experts. Laying out a plan to shift all Canada’s electricity to renewable sources by 2035 and meet our 2050 target, the report endorses key policies we have proposed to move Canada forward: internalizing costs through carbon pricing and “polluter pay” laws; restoring and enforcing environmental protections; switching subsidies from fossil fuels to renewables; and using cap-and-trade to lower emissions and raise revenue.

Our approach must also be guided by our values. Environmental justice goes hand in hand with economic and social justice. Energy-efficient buildings and vehicles are important in lowering emissions and promoting them can reduce our footprint and improve our quality of life. New investment in infrastructure and public transit can offer urban residents quicker commutes and cleaner air. Tax credits for energy-efficient retrofits can create thousands of skilled trades jobs and increase efficiency, lowering Canada’s emissions and home energy bills––crucial for low-income families. At the same time, federal loan guarantees can help every community, including First Nations, share in Canada’s blossoming clean energy sector.

Stephen Harper’s choice between economic wealth and environmental health—like his choice between protection from violence and protection of civil liberties—is beguiling but false. In this century, economic prosperity is inextricably tethered to the health of natural systems. Our grandchildren must not only live sustainably on this planet, they can also live well. 

Despite the absence of federal government leadership, there are hopeful signs. From 2009 to 2013, employment in clean energy grew by 37 percent and Canada built enough new renewable electricity capacity to power 2.7 million homes. Clean energy now employs more people than the oil sands. Imagine what’s possible with a new and engaged federal government.

While Canada overall has captured just one percent of the global market, Victoria is ideally positioned to seize the opportunity of clean energy. With deep-rooted research centres like UVic’s Institute for Integrated Energy Systems, a vibrant tech sector and an educated, climate-conscious workforce, our community will help lead Canada’s transition from fossil fuel dependence to sustainability.

Around the globe, the renewable energy revolution will roll on, whether we join in it or not. In 2010, for the first time, global net investment in new renewable energy capacity topped investment in fossil fuels––a trend that has continued. After much finger-pointing in Copenhagen in 2009, the world’s two biggest emitters reached an agreement that will see China’s emissions stabilized and America’s reduced by 30 percent by 2030. China now leads the world in renewable energy investment. As the world turns the corner on clean energy, Canada risks being left behind.

This year, as countries aim to secure an agreement to avert dangerous climate change, the Prime Minister elected in October will immediately face crucial decisions. His policy at the Paris summit; what kinds of sustainable development laws he seeks to pass––these choices will touch the lives of our children and grandchildren.

This Earth Day, let’s commit to making 2015 the turning point in that fight.

Murray Rankin, MP for Victoria, is a nationally recognized expert in environmental and public law, who has been involved in many landmark legal cases in British Columbia and the Supreme Court of Canada.