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Can Trudeau change Canada’s poor environmental record?

Nicholas Kamm, AFP | Justin Trudeau's victory on October 19 ended almost 10 years of Conservative rule

Newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to set out his environmental agenda, something he will be expected to do before the Paris COP21 climate talks which are due to begin at the end of November.


The issue is already shaping up as a priority for the incoming administration. Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard said on Tuesday "the world wants a change in tone and priorities on the climate file" from Canada.

"We have time before December (for Ottawa and the regions) to come up with a firm target that Canada will pitch at the talks," he said.

‘Climate laggard’

Trudeau’s Conservative predecessor Stephen Harper would almost certainly have been a spanner in the works at the Paris talks.

Blasted as a "climate laggard" by the UN, Canada under Harper became the first country to pull out of the landmark Kyoto Protocol in 2011, inflicting lasting damage on relations with traditional allies in Europe among others.

Meanwhile Harper, who led Canada for nearly ten years, was an ardent champion of fossil fuel extraction and firmly believed that economic growth and green energy were incompatible.

In this spirit, he set about exploiting Alberta’s oil sands, described by UK weekly the Economist as one of the world’s “bleakest scenes of man-made destruction”.

Nothing concrete, yet

With just over a month before the Paris climate talks, there is a certain amount of relief among more environmentally focused world leaders that Canada is now under “greener” leadership.

But Trudeau has yet to commit anything concrete – and during his 20-minute victory speech, he didn’t use the word “environment” once.

Along with Australia, Canada is one of "three or four laggards" expected in Paris in December, according to CBC environmental journalist Étienne Leblanc.

"Over the last ten years Canada has developed a very bad reputation as a country that doesn’t care about climate change and lets companies pollute as much as they like,” he told FRANCE 24. “Justin Trudeau’s main challenge in Paris will be to restore Canada’s reputation on the world stage.”

The fact that Trudeau has yet to set out a target for greenhouse gas emissions is a problem for the COP21 talks, where countries are hoping to set a limit on global climate change to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

"Canada cannot go to Paris empty-handed,” Greenpeace spokeswoman Rania Massoud told FRANCE 24. “Trudeau needs to prove his credentials by fixing ambitious CO2 reduction targets for 2025.”

But without an official commitment, Trudeau risks arriving in Paris armed only with his predecessor’s meagre environmental ambitions, namely a 30% reduction of CO2 emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, while the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends a far higher target of 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

"If Justin Trudeau intends to ensure the change expected by the vast majority of Canadians who voted for him, he must show that Canada can once again become a world leader in science, development and the fight against climate change,” said Massoud. “He must begin an era that takes Canada out of its international isolation.”

The hangover of the Harper years

Not setting out CO2 reduction targets may be a pragmatic move for Canada’s new leader, according to Leblanc.

“It doesn’t mean he is not ambitious," he said. “Perhaps it is even too late for him to go to COP21 with new targets. He probably intends to propose something more realistic given Canada’s current economic structure.”

This was the campaign argument made by Thomas Mulcair, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP), who wanted a 34 percent CO2 reduction below 1990 levels by 2030.

Many in Canada think this is a more realistic aim given the number of provinces whose economies rely almost entirely on oil production (Alberta has the third largest oil reserves in the world), and Trudeau has promised to meet with provincial leaders to discuss the country’s environmental strategy within three months of the Paris talks.

‘Worryingly vague’ position on oil pipelines

The Paris talks will be Trudeau’s first major diplomatic outing since taking office, and “the risk for him is that he is unable to achieve anything after the talks,” said Leblanc, who said there was a general unease among his supporters that the status quo from the Harper years would prevail.

One hugely contentious issue is the construction of oil pipelines linking Canada with the United States.

“Trudeau’s position on these projects is worryingly vague,” said Massoud, who said Trudeau was neither completely opposed to pipelines [he supports the Keystone XL project] nor entirely supportive of them [he opposes the Northern Gateway project in British Colombia].

But he has promised some environmental changes, however, such as investing 1.2 billion dollars in green energy and earmarking a further 20 billion dollars to develop public transport.

"Canada's days of being a less than enthusiastic actor on climate change are behind us," Trudeau told the news conference in Ottawa following his election victory.

This article was translated from the original in French

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