Environmental Review Process

Liberals’ new ‘climate test’ has a loophole big enough to fit a pipeline through

A powerful climate movement remains key to stopping Energy East and Kinder Morgan
Photo: Billy Wilson

Back in June, 2013, Barack Obama changed pipeline politics with a simple phrase: “The net effects of the pipeline's impact on our climate will be absolutely critical in determining whether this project will be allowed to go forward.”

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With that sentence, Obama created the first real “climate test” of a major fossil fuel project in North America. A little over two years later, he rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, citing its impact on climate change.

Now Canada is facing a similar situation. Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna, alongside Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr, recently announced a pipeline “climate test.” But what does Canada’s climate test really mean?

The Canadian government grabbed a firm hold of the decision over whether to build the Energy East and Kinder Morgan pipelines with their announcement of supplemental reviews. In doing so, they broke a campaign promise to “end the practice of having federal Ministers interfere in the environmental assessment process.” But they also made it clear that the final decision on pipelines will be political. That means the strength of a climate test, and of other measures in the new pipeline reviews, depends on us.

Selective climate math

According to a report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canada’s fair share of a global carbon budget would lie somewhere between two and 20 gigatonnes. Put another way, even at the top end of that range, Canada would need to leave around 80 per cent of fossil fuel reserves underground to do our fair share in meeting a 2C climate limit. And we’d need to leave even more underground to meet the 1.5C pledge we made in Paris. Knowing this, it’s clear that there is no way a pipeline designed to expand Canada’s fastest-growing source of emissions, the tar sands, can pass a legitimate climate test. Unfortunately, the government’s “climate test” has a fatal flaw.

The government has stated that it will consider the “upstream” and “direct” emissions of pipelines and export the responsibility for the bulk of tar sands emissions onto other nations. This kind of selective math reflects a problem at the heart of developing ambitious climate policy in Canada and around the globe. It ignores the massive shift away from thinking about climate change as a challenge to keep emissions out of the sky and towards the imperative to keep fossil fuels in the ground. This opens the door to massive loopholes, allowing governments to pick and choose what they do and don’t want to be responsible for when it comes to climate change.

Knowing the onslaught of plans to expand the fossil fuel industry in Canada, our job is to shift the political window. If serious about becoming a climate leader, the Trudeau government needs to understand that Canada has a share of the global carbon budget that it must work within. From that baseline, we can build out climate plans, pipeline reviews and economic strategies for the 21st century.

Diverse coalitions of unlikely allies have defined successful fossil fuel opposition, and now we need to lean into that space and move beyond environmentalism.

To move this window, we need to understand how the government plans to make these decisions. During the pipeline review announcement, Minister Carr explained his role as “compromiser-in-chief” as finding the middle ground between what he described as the 20 per cent of people who want to build everything and the 20 per cent of people who want to stop everything. In other words, this government wants to create a spectrum with the fossil fuel industry on one end and pipeline opponents on the other so that it can find the mushy middle.

We need to exploit the metaphorical exhaust port in the government’s approach, the fact that neither pipeline opponents, nor the climate movement as a whole, are entirely made up of “environmentalists.” Instead it is a rich tapestry of Indigenous peoples, municipalities, community groups, landowners, climate activists, young people, students and many others. Diverse coalitions of unlikely allies have defined successful fossil fuel opposition, and now we need to lean into that space and move beyond environmentalism.

Bold action needed

The government has said it will make pipeline decisions based on “national interest.” It’s up to us to make them to understand that climate change will never be in our best interest. More than this, we need Prime Minister Trudeau to understand that, in the era of climate change, fossil fuel projects need to be measured against a real climate plan, one that reflects the imperatives to build a 100 per cent renewable economy and do so in a way that supports workers, to keep fossil fuels in the ground and to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples.

Nearly three-quarters of Canadians support bold climate action, and we need to find ways to mobilize those people to oppose business as usual. The good news is that the government is giving us a golden opportunity with the launch of a process to develop Canada’s National Climate Strategy in early March. With premiers and the prime minister coming together, we need to come together as well.

We need to articulate a People’s Climate Plan that reflects the values of science, justice and an economy that works for people and put it alongside the plan coming from the federal and provincial governments. Exactly what this looks like is up to us to figure out, but we know it needs to be bolder and broader than anything this movement has ever tried.

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