COP26, the First Chance to Talk Global Climate Since the Pandemic Began

While COVID-19 forced governments, businesses, and civil society to focus on emergency response and economic recovery, the pandemic has also compelled us to think about how we want to rebuild coming out of it. Shelter in place requirements saw air quality improvements in major cities where passenger traffic was all but put on pause. Coupled with continued warnings from scientists across the globe, today there is a near consensus that all countries need to take action on greenhouse gas emissions.

No where was this more evident than at the recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) which concluded in mid-November in Glasgow. Many global leaders used the first COP since the start of the pandemic to draw a line in the sand on important issues such as the use of coal. During his opening remarks, Prime Minister Trudeau boldly announced that his government would have a plan to cap emissions from the oil and gas sector to ensure that the sector reaches net-zero emissions by 2050. While this commitment can be found in the Liberal Party’s recent campaign platform, announcing it on COP’s global stage with the world watching conveyed a strong message that he intended to be a leader on this matter.

Predictably, this drew the ire of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who has stressed the importance of the federal government needing to consult with provincial counterparts before any action is taken.

However, it must be recognized that some of the world’s largest oil and gas players, most notably BP and Shell, have announced plans and an intention to reach net zero by 2050. Additionally, Canada’s largest oil sands producers have created an alliance to collaborate with the federal and Alberta governments to achieve this milestone. While the exact pathway to reaching this critical target is not fully mapped out, there is consensus between government and business that net zero by 2050 is necessary for the sake of our environment and an important way forward for the economy. A formal plan and mechanisms on how to reach this goal would also create a stable investing environment for Canada’s energy sector. This is necessary work that needs input from all parties involved: the federal government, the provinces, and businesses.

The Prime Minister continued to flex Canada’s environmental regulations as a standard for others to follow at COP by advocating for a global price on pollution and suggesting that other countries should use Canada’s federal carbon tax as a model. However, when asked if he would increase Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets beyond the 40 to 45 per cent by 2030, the Prime Minister was non-committal, instead stating the need to reach these targets first before there can be talk of an increase. This cautious approach will hopefully allow the government to take time in developing a full range of mechanisms that can truly help Canada reach its GHG reduction targets on time, rather than committing to larger targets for the sake of scoring quick political points. And with the newly passed Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act that was pushed through in the final hours of the last parliamentary session, the pressure is on for the government to produce its very first emissions reduction plan for the 2030 target in the upcoming months.

With Parliament back, the work also begins to bring Canada’s latest achievements at COP26 back home. Recently appointed Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, who were also present at COP, will be playing a key role in many of the initiatives that were announced. For Canada and the world, decisive, coordinated action has never been more necessary in the fight against climate change.