Canada's lackluster climate mitigation results present economic and geopolitical vulnerabilities - Ryan Katz-Rosene

Posted on Tuesday, May 14, 2019



leaf growing in clay

Despite introducing a comprehensive pan-Canadian plan to address climate change in December 2016, Canada is still NOT on track to meet its international greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction commitments. The country's lackluster performance in this area is causing it to fall behind other industrialized nations, and gives rise to a range of economic and political vulnerabilities. This brief recommends a suite of policies Canada could take to embolden its climate change mitigation plan, and argues that regaining a position of "climate leadership" offers economic and geopolitical benefits.


  • Canada faces a range of economic and political vulnerabilities if it fails to "catch-up" to other industrialized nations as the international community tackles climate change mitigation.
  • The Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change (PCF) enacted in December 2016 is a positive step in the right direction, but ultimately bolder action is needed if: Canada wants to remain economically competitive in the 21st century global economy; if it wants to maintain its international reputation; and if it wants to do its part for the climate.


  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted in 2018 that the world has a short window of time (up to 2030) to enact strong climate change mitigation policies in order to avoid warming of more than 1.5C. Multiple 'pathways' to stay within 1.5C are possible, but all require immediate GHG reductions and a major scale-up of carbon sequestration.
  • Canada established a reputation as an international leader on the environment as far back as the early 1970s, when it helped chair the UN's inaugural Environment conference (in Stockholm, 1972). Successive governments maintained this leadership position via its role in the Montreal Protocol (1987), the 'Acid Rain Treaty' with the U.S. (1991), strong commitments at the Kyoto Protocol in 1992, etc. This leadership position began to erode with the Chrétien government’s weakening of its Kyoto compliance measures, despite officially ratifying the accord.[1] Canada’s environmental reputation was further tarnished during the Harper years (2006 - 2015), as the government watered down its GHG reduction targets and was seen as stalling progress at global climate talks. In 2015, the Trudeau government announced that "Canada is back" - ready to return to its leadership role;
  • Canada has since enacted a comprehensive plan to address climate change (PCF), with its main successes thus far being improved energy efficiency and less carbon-intensive energy production. However, while more than a dozen European nations and the U.S. have seen significant GHG reductions over the last 15 years,[2] Canada's emissions reductions over this time were minimal (- 2%), and emissions have plateaued in recent years. Canada is far off track to meet its own GHG reduction targets.[3] Despite this, a number of provinces are threatening to stymie the federal government's signature climate change policies (carbon fee and dividend).


  • The contours of a 21st Century 'green economy' are taking shape, and technologies like electric vehicles, renewable energy generation, and other low carbon technologies and practices are expanding rapidly. Nations failing to tap into these emerging low carbon markets could miss out on tremendous investment opportunities and end up getting 'left behind', while nations which continue to depend on fossil fuel resource sectors could find themselves facing economic hardship due to a range of factors (high commodity prices, rapid shifts in demand, export and transport bottle necks, etc.)
  • Canada is bidding for a coveted seat on the UN Security Council in 2021, but it is facing stiff competition for the June 2020 vote (against Ireland and Norway). If Canada does not maintain a leadership position on climate, this could compromise Canada's chances of earning a seat on the council.[4]
  • Canada has a significant oil and gas sector (including the third largest petroleum reserves in the world), contributing about 4% to the nation’s GDP (about 4 times the size of the auto manufacturing sector).[5] It is also a geographically large country in the Northern hemisphere with a wealthy and high-consumption economy. In many ways these factors have stalled GHG reduction efforts in the last 15 years. More specifically, GHG reductions from improved energy efficiency and lower carbon energy production have been offset by: a) increasing oil and gas emissions; b) increasing transportation emissions; and c) economic growth.[6]
  • As the rest of the world continues to confront climate change and suffer its consequences, pressure will foreseeably grow on the oil and gas sector as it faces increasing threats to its legitimacy and as low carbon technologies and practices (like electric vehicles; telecommuting; biofuels; renewable energy; electrification of other sectors, etc.) potentially displace demand for oil and gas.
  • Ultimately for GHG reduction policies to be successful, they will have to tackle the uncomfortable challenges of reducing demand for fossil fuel products and 'stranding' some of the country's remaining oil and gas assets. The more prepared affected communities are for these inevitabilities, the less economically vulnerable they will be.
  • The costs of dealing with climate change in Canada have steadily grown in recent decades (owing to disaster management and assistance to insurance claims for property damage). A recent report found that Canada is warming at twice the global rate.[7] Generally speaking, the more the world warms, the more expensive will be the damage.


Some possible policies to embolden Canada's climate mitigation plan for the sake of protecting it from economic and political vulnerabilities include:

  • Eliminate fossil fuel subsidies as per commitments made at the G20 in 2009, and as per the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development (CESD) 2019 audit report.[8] These subsidies only further entrench Canada's vulnerabilities and dependence on the fossil fuel sector.
  • Introduce an ambitious, comprehensive national transport sector decarbonization plan in conjunction with the existing transport-related components of the PCF, focusing on decarbonizing the sector by 2055. This would involve a wide-range of regulations, market incentives, investments, partnerships with the private and non-profit sector, coordination with provincial and municipal planning departments, all aiming to spark major innovations in new transport technologies, refurbishments and improvements of existing systems, and major infrastructural projects.
  • Build a comprehensive market for carbon removal and sequestration, in conjunction with the private sector, and with major investments in R&D and the post-secondary sector targeted to making Canada the world's leader in this sector (as well as the carbon-free transport sector).
  • Commit to major investments in 'green jobs' in Alberta and Saskatchewan, with special emphasis on communities which have faced economic hardship from the declining oil sector. This may involve public investments in production or R&D in new government-owned low-carbon industries (energy storage, renewables, low carbon transport technologies, bioenergy, hyrdogen, etc.) or partner agreements projects with private sector companies involved in those sectors to move jobs to those regions.
  • Convene a National Panel of experts to produce a plan to cap fossil fuel production and reduce level of extraction for non-combustion uses only (high-grade reusable plastics, hydrogen production, etc.), and strand remaining high-carbon assets.

[1] Jeffrey Simpson, “Mr. Chrétien’s Kyoto Sleight of Hand,” Globe and Mail, September 6, 2002,

[2] Corinne Le Quéré et al., “Drivers of Declining CO 2 Emissions in 18 Developed Economies,” Nature Climate Change 9, no. 3 (March 2019): 213,

[3] Climate Action Tracker, “Canada,”, April 30, 2018,

[4] Elise von Scheel and 2019 4:00 AM ET | Last Updated: April 29, “Costs for Canada’s UN Security Council Bid Keep Mounting,” CBC News, April 29, 2019,

[5] Natural Resources Canada, “Energy and the Economy,” Energy and the Economy, October 6, 2017,

[6] Environment and Climate Change Canada, “National Inventory Report 1990-2016: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada” (Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2018).

[7] Natural Resources Canada, “Canada’s Changing Climate Report” (Ottawa: Natural Resource Canada, June 25, 2018),

[8] Office of the Auditor General of Canada Government of Canada, “Report 3—Tax Subsidies for Fossil Fuels—Department of Finance Canada” (Ottawa: Office of the Auditor General of Canada, April 2, 2019),

Ryan Katz-Rosene

Ryan Katz-Rosene in an Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies, where he researches and teaches a range of topics relating to global environmental politics, international political economy, and Canada’s role in the world. At the university Ryan helps coordinate the International Political Economy Network (IPEN), while off campus he serves as Vice President of the Environmental Studies Association of Canada. In 2017 Ryan completed a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Ottawa, examining ongoing debates about the role of nuclear energy in climate change mitigation efforts. He obtained his Ph.D. at Carleton University in 2014, writing his dissertation about the environmental political economy of high-speed rail development. He lives on (and helps to manage) a small organic family farm in Cantley, Québec.

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