Liberals say a new climate plan is still in the works despite pandemic

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson says he doesn’t know why it was suggested recently that the Liberal government had shelved a green recovery plan ahead of Wednesday’s throne speech.

But he said he is working on an “ambitious” climate plan — just as the Liberals promised during last year’s election.

“Part of my mandate is to develop an enhanced climate plan for Canada that will demonstrate clearly how we will exceed our 2030 targets. I have been working on that since the day that I was sworn in as environment minister. And some of that work has accelerated during this period,” Wilkinson said in an interview with CBC News on Friday.

“We do intend to bring forward that climate plan. It has not been shelved in any way. And we will be doing it well before the next [United Nations climate conference],” which is scheduled for November 2021.

So regardless of how much of a green recovery is laid out in the throne speech, there is good reason to expect a new green plan before too long.

But if the Liberals remain committed to even greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — and if they want to show meaningful steps toward that goal before the next federal election — there might be all the more pressure on them to seize every opportunity in the coming months to take action.

Tone shifted as COVID-19 cases began to rise

With the likely need for significant stimulus spending by the federal government to compensate for the economic damage that COVID-19 will leave behind, policy thinkers outside the government have spent the last several months touting and proposing plans for a green recovery.

Liberals themselves then began to talk this summer of a push for transformational change, including on climate policy. But as the fall approached — and as the number of new cases of COVID-19 began to rise — the government’s tone shifted to more immediate concerns.

“There’s a sensitivity to being perceived to hijack the moment for a green recovery,” one senior Liberal source told CBC News last week.

That prompted fears the Liberals were not just changing their tone but their plans — Leadnow launched an “emergency petition” calling on the government to “reinstate” the green recovery plan that had reportedly been shelved.

“A strong second wave of the pandemic might delay the implementation of measures, but there is no reason it should delay announcements of legislative intent or the funding for a green recovery that puts people back to work solving the health and climate crises,” said Keith Stewart, a senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada.

Advocacy groups have expressed concern that the Liberals were not just changing their tone but their plans for the environment due to a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases, but Wilkinson says that’s not the case, and he’s working on an ‘ambitious’ climate plan. (Reuters)

The government does have to be careful, Wilkinson said, that it’s “not perceived in some way of taking advantage of the situation.”

“I think that Canadians have to be assured that their governments are very much focused on the here and now in the context of the pandemic,” he said. “But Canadians also expect their governments to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, right? They expect us to also be able to think about the future.”

Further steps expected in coming months

There will likely be areas where green interests and pandemic-related problems overlap.

Wilkinson mentions one: Building retrofits to improve energy efficiency could be a significant source of employment, particularly for young people who have suffered disproportionately from the economic shutdown. (By coincidence, a focus on retrofits was one suggestion made by NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh during a speech on Friday.)

The pandemic has forced some changes to the government’s broader plans. As reported this week by La Presse, the government has not yet planted any of the two billion new trees it promised in last year’s campaign. Wilkinson links that to the fact that there wasn’t a federal budget in the spring.

People think nine years is a long time [to exceed climate targets]. In the context of some of the changes that need to be made, that’s not a very long time.– Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson

But Wilkinson said the government should be able to move forward with climate change accountability legislation in the fall or early in the new year. An expert panel to advise on the path to net-zero emissions by 2050 is also expected in the “near term,” and Wilkinson said the government should have more to say about plastics in the “next couple months.”

The Liberal platform already committed the government to meaningful action on building retrofits and promoting the use of zero-emission vehicles. As far as a plan to exceed the 2030 target — part of the Paris Agreement on climate change drafted in 2015 — Wilkinson also mentioned the use of hydrogen to fuel heavy-duty transportation and working with industry, including oil and gas, to reduce emissions. 

Timing is ‘urgent,’ Wilkinson says

Asked whether he empathizes with or shares the desire for a green recovery, Wilkinson offered two thoughts with which environmentalists would likely agree.

“The timing around addressing climate change is urgent,” he said. “We’re almost at the end of 2020, we have a long way to go to meet — and we promised to exceed — our 2030 targets. So that’s nine years. People think nine years is a long time. In the context of some of the changes that need to be made, that’s not a very long time,” Wilkinson said.

Greenpeace’s Arctic Sunrise ship is seen floating near pieces of ice in the Arctic Ocean on Sept. 14. Scientists say climate change is altering the region’s landscape, with rising temperatures and melting ice. (Natalie Thomas/Reuters)

The Liberals announced their intention last year to exceed the 2030 target before they had even explained how they would get to that level. According to the most recent data, Canada is still projected to exceed its target for 2030 by 77 megatonnes — and it hasn’t been easy to get even that close. Conservatives are now criticizing the imposition of a clean fuel standard, while the NDP’s Singh chided the Liberals for still failing to do enough.

“I think that people see perhaps this as an opportunity for them to reflect. And I agree with that as well,” Wilkinson said.

“One of the things that we do need to reflect on is we have been addressing a pandemic that has had some very terrible effects. And if you look at climate change, the effects, if we do not address it, will be far more significant than what we’ve already experienced with COVID-19.

“So I do think it’s an important time to reflect and to then turn with urgency to how do we actually ensure that Canada’s playing its part, both domestically and on the world stage, to move this agenda forward?”

Environmentalists will no doubt remind Wilkinson of these words — and the government’s own commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 — if the Liberals seem to lack urgency in the months ahead.

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