First ministers' summit

Pipelines or Paris? Trudeau and the premiers must choose

Labour movement’s green jobs proposal points the way for climate action
Photo: Province of B.C.

Canada’s first ministers are meeting today to discuss climate change. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his top cabinet ministers are sitting down in Vancouver with the premiers of all provinces and territories.

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On the eve of his meetings with the premiers, Trudeau on Wednesday delivered a keynote address to the Globe 2016 summit in Vancouver on clean energy and sustainability.

In his remarks, the prime minister argued that the climate crisis “demands doing the right thing for the planet and the bottom line. The future is happening now and Canada needs to be a part of it.”

But he also used the occasion to advocate for new oil pipelines: “The choice between pipelines and wind turbines is a false one. We need both.”

The prime minister is wrong. Hard choices must be made, between the interests of fossil fuel corporations and the possibility of a decent collective future for Canadians and people all over the world.

Trudeau and his new government are saying many of the right things about the global climate emergency. Rhetorically, this marks a significant break with the Harper decade — this change alone saw the Canadian delegation welcomed with open arms and relieved smiles at last year’s UN climate summit in Paris.

These much-touted sunny ways, however, shouldn’t distract us from the larger contradictions. Trudeau and the Liberals remain committed to the expansion of tar sands and other fossil fuel infrastructure. Amid all the talk of the importance of social license and sustainability, the government makes it clear that a driving priority, as Minister Jim Carr is fond of emphasizing, is to “get our resources to market.”

The reality of the climate emergency, however, means that a government committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions cannot be all things to all people. There is no sustainable way to expand oil sands production, or coal or liquefied natural gas export.

Trudeau's pitch for pipelines plus wind turbines runs counter to the latest evidence from both economists and scientists. As Scotiabank's CEO pointed out recently, the low price of oil demolishes the business case for new pipeline projects like Energy East. Furthermore, there's an opportunity cost on investing in an industry on its way out like fossil fuels. In a recent letter, dozens of scientists call on the government to prioritize investment in clean energy technology, warning that Canada is already well behind in this field.

The science is also clear: certain fossil fuel products must be kept from going to market and being burned for energy. A lot of the oil will have to stay in the soil. A recent comprehensive study in the journal Nature for example, found that 85 per cent of tar sands deposits would need to be left in the ground for the world to stay beneath the threshold of a 2C global temperature increase. And remember that in Paris, Canada pledged to strive to keep global warming to 1.5C or less.

If Trudeau is serious about living up to the commitments Canada made in Paris, and if he sincerely believes that climate change is the key challenge of our time, then his government must work toward phasing out fossil fuels as rapidly as possible. New mega infrastructure projects for fossil fuel exports — pipelines like Kinder Morgan’s TransMountain or TransCanada’s Energy East — should be non-starters. It’s pipelines or Paris; it can’t be both.

As a prime minister who has pledged to forge a more amicable working relationship with the premiers, Trudeau faces real challenges. Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall seems to relish distinguishing himself as the voice of Harper-esque discontent with any baby steps towards climate sanity, objecting to the idea of a carbon tax and ramping up divisive pro-pipeline and anti-Quebec rhetoric.

More subtle but no less pro-pipeline, of course, is the NDP’s Rachel Notley in Alberta, who wants Canadians to see cylindrical bitumen transport as the 21st century’s equivalent of the “nation-building” Canadian Pacific Railway. Liberals such as B.C.’s Christy Clark and Quebec’s Philippe Couillard play a more subtle game, carefully triangulating their rhetoric between their commitments to big business and the massive popular opposition to new pipelines.

The challenges of federal-provincial cooperation on climate provided Trudeau with a plausible excuse in Paris for holding off on proposing more ambitious greenhouse gas emissions than the Harper government had offered.

But politicians must not be allowed to use each other as excuses for inaction. That’s why we should look to social movements and civil society for the solution to our climate impasse. On March 2 in Vancouver, after Trudeau spoke, the Canadian Labour Congress joined with environmentalist David Suzuki and others to present a new report that lays out a plan for one million climate jobs.

“Rising CO2 levels and job losses are the products of the same economic model,” notes the report, which advocates for public investment in four areas — clean renewable energy, energy efficiencies/green buildings, public transit, and higher speed rail transport — in order to lower Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions while creating decent employment.

Justin Trudeau was elected largely on the strength of his promise to spend big when it comes to necessary infrastructure and job creation, even if it meant short-term deficits. The campaign pledge sounded ambitious, but it was purposefully vague. The question that the government needs to answer now is: what kind of infrastructure will we invest in? Pipelines and new export terminals for climate-vandalizing industries, or clean energy public transit in our cities and high-speed rail connecting major centres?

Speaking of building new railways, the analogy between the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 19th century and the proposed pipelines today is appropriate in at least one sense: both cases involve massive infrastructure projects and a lack of approval from the original inhabitants of the territories they would cross.

What Canada needs today is not nation-building, but the building of nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous peoples. That starts with observing their rights to free, prior and informed consent.

Pipelines and fossil fuel extraction take us in exactly the wrong direction. If the “future is now,” as Trudeau says, then we’re behind schedule when it comes to building the clean, sustainable energy society we need.

Let’s hope the government reads the Canadian Labour Congress’s proposal for one million climate jobs and begins to formulate policy to have it implemented. There’s no time to waste.

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