Climate Justice & Sustainability

Country In Focus: The Canadian government’s performance on climate change: a review

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In the first of a new series looking at the state of environmental policy in a variety of countries, environmental campaigner and journalist Crystel Hajjar reports from Canada. Having pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol just a day after climate negotiations closed in Cancun, and with a policy of supporting development of the environmentally devastating ‘tar sands’, Canada has become a pariah in the environmental arena.

Canada is the second largest country in the world with a landmass that covers a wide and varying ecosystem and coasts on all of the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans.

Three Canadian territories are located on the Arctic Circle and are highly impacted by climate change, especially by the melting of the permafrost and icecaps. They are largely inhabited by Canada’s indigenous population who is facing many challenges in keeping a traditional lifestyle due to climate change.

Canada’s political history with climate change

Canada was among the first countries to condemn climate change, when in 1988 Canada’s Conservative Environment Minister Lucien Bouchard said that climate change “threatens the survival of our species.” His government also promised to stabilize emissions at 1990 levels before the UN Conference on Environment and Development during which the UNFCCC came to be in 1992.

That did not happen, but in 1998 the subsequent Liberal government signed on to the Kyoto Protocol with a target of 6% reduction below 1990 levels by 2012. The protocol was not ratified until four years later in December 2002. The course of action was rather slow; however, the government started a series of voluntary initiatives and presented action plans that ultimately did not lead to a reduction in emissions.

In December 2009 under the Copenhagen Accord, Canada replaced the Kyoto targets by a 17% reduction below 2005 levels by 2020. It is important to note that Canada’s 2005 emissions levels were 740 MT CO2 eq which 25% higher than the 1990 levels.

On December 12th, 2011 a day after the end of the 17th UN Climate Negotiations, Canada’s Conservative Environment Minister announced Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol under the pretext that “it has no choice given the economic situation.”


Democracy Now! reports on Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.

Currently, the Canadian government is supporting openly the carbon-intensive, extractive industry of the tar sands, by giving over $1.4 billion per year in terms of tax breaks and subsidies. It also lobbied in the United States and in the EU to prevent the listing of the tar sands oil as unconventional and hence making it less desirable to use.

Most recently, a report at the 18th UN climate negotiations ranked Canada’s performance 58th out of the 61 countries that are responsible for 90% of GHG emissions.

What are some of the reasons behind Canada’s decline?

Disagreement among different levels of governments:

Canada is a federal entity, formed of 10 provinces and three territories each of which has its own semi-autonomously run government. Prior to signing the Kyoto Protocol, a meeting between the federal government and the provinces (excluding Quebec) decided on stabilizing the emissions to the 1990 levels by 2010. The federal government solely suggested a 3% reduction instead. When the Kyoto targets were negotiated Canada decided to increase it to 6% as a compromise between the American and the European targets*. Additionally, the Alberta government was strongly opposed to the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 2002.

Government change:

In 2006, a change in leadership from a Liberal to a Conservative government changed Canada’s international position on climate change. While the previous government did not succeed to reduce emissions, it has developed plans and allocated funding for the issue. However, Canada’s Conservative government under the leadership of Stephen Harper have publicly denounced the Kyoto Protocol and held up progress internationally during the climate negotiations. It is openly supporting the tar sands industry, which is considered the primary reason that is preventing Canada from reaching its GHG emissions.

Proximity of the United States:

Canada’s politics are more often than not impacted by the U.S. policies and this government is no different. Ministers have stated on multiple occasions that “less Kyoto, more Washington” is the way to move forward. The government has also assured Canadians that the targets from the Copenhagen Accord were in line with the U.S. plans.

This decline is not going unnoticed

There are rising youth and indigenous movements that are calling for climate action and opposing the tar sands expansion. In October 2012, the largest climate justice youth gathering took place in Ottawa with the aim of starting local climate justice organizing across the country in solidarity with indigenous people.

There is also a rise in indigenous resistance to the tar sands that are developed upstream form many indigenous communities as well as pipelines that often cross through indigenous territories. This resistance is also partially related to climate campaigning in the same regions.

The Oil & Gas Industry

The Oil & Gas Industry infographic

In the last few years, The Canadian government has been cutting the budget of environmental groups and organizations and limiting the scope of work that can be done under charitable status. More importantly, however, environmental activists and organizers have are being monitored by the police and the country’s security agencies. Despite these challenges, there are still people rising against the political structure and depending significant action on climate change.

*Stoett, P. J. (2009). Looking for leadership: Canada and climate change policy. In H. Selin & S. VanDeveer (Eds.),Changing climates in North American politics(pp. 47-64). Cambridge, U.S. : The MIT Press

Feature Image Credit: Wikipedia