Can Canada Lead on Climate Change?
In major climate march this weekend, activists aim to put pressure on national government
This weekend, before Canadian premiers gather in Quebec City on April 14 to discuss climate change, activists from across the country are taking to the streets to deliver a simple message: Canada needs to do its part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and until now, it has failed miserably to do so. As one activist wrote on the Act on Climate March website, “Remember when Canada used to be an environmental leader?” Those days seem to be a distant memory.
Photo by Chris Yakimov, on Flickr
The aim of the summit, which will bring together representatives of Canada’s provinces and territories, is to come up with a set of benchmarks for national climate action in advance of the UN’s Climate Change Conference in Paris in December. Yet activists have little faith in their elected officials’ commitment to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. In what is being dubbed “Canada’s biggest climate march” environmental activists, union leaders, and student groups hope to pressure their leaders into taking a much stronger stand on Canadian tar sands development and the many pipeline projects that would accelerate its production.
“We’re hoping that climate change will be a huge issue in Canadian politics in the year ahead,” says Mike Hudema, an organizer with Greenpeace Edmonton. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is up for reelection in October, has been a major friend and supporter of the oil and gas industry. In Alberta, the heart of tar sands production, a conservative government, closely aligned with the energy industry, has held onto power for more than 45 years. Alberta Premier Jim Prentice recently announced that provincial elections would take place in May, but Hudema says it is unlikely that things will change.
“In terms of government support,” Hudema says, “they’re definitely pushing fairly heavily against us.” He points to proposed counter terrorism legislation that activists fear could be used to target environmental groups. For years the Royal Canadian Mounted Police has suggested that “environmental extremism” poses a threat to Canada’s energy sector. “There really has been a witch hunt on behalf of the federal government to dismantle opposition to the pro-tar sands agenda,” says Hudema. In addition, the opposition parties have proven to be only marginally better on the question of oil and gas development, especially when it comes to tar sands.
Despite the absence of political leadership, activists across Canada and the United States, to the surprise of many, have mounted effective campaigns against the five major pipeline projects that would carry tar sands oil from Alberta to refineries throughout North America.
The Enbridge Northern Gateway project, which would carry petroleum from Edmonton to a new marine terminal in British Columbia, has been stalled after encountering fierce opposition from First Nations and national environmental groups. Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline in British Columbia has also come up against local opposition, forcing the company to reroute the project. A review of the pipeline by Canada’s National Energy Board has been delayed until after the 2015 election.
Keystone XL of course has been delayed for years and the Obama administration continues to hint that it is less than enthusiastic about its prospects. Because of massive opposition in Quebec, TransCanada’s Energy East Pipeline now faces significant hurdles. Last week the company announced a two-year delay in construction of the pipeline that would carry tar sands from Alberta to New Brunswick. The reason: A ruling by Canada’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife that beluga whales in the area where the company planned to build its export terminal are threatened. Finally, the line 9 reversal, another Enbridge project which would carry crude from Western Canada to Montreal, has been hampered by innumerable delays, mounting costs, and an unexpected battle over local control of a shipping terminal in South Portland, Maine. Add to that the low price of oil, and a lot of projects are being shelved.
“We’re winning on every single front to stop projects in their tracks,” says Hudema.
The Act on Climate March will be an opportunity for these various campaigns to come together along with union leaders and student groups from Quebec and Montreal. Three of Canada’s major unions — CSN, CSQ, and SFPQ — will participate. A meeting of First Nations groups will take place the evening before the march and there will also be a forum on transitioning to a low carbon economy. “There’s a good chance it will be the biggest environmental demo ever to happen in Quebec City,” says Patrick Bonin, a climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Montreal and one of the organizers of this weekend’s rally.
Bonin emphasizes that the Act on Climate March is not just about opposition to tar sands development and the various pipeline projects. It’s about coming up with solutions and pressuring the federal government to invest in a long-term transition to a clean energy economy. In order to do that, though, organizers say that 80 percent of tar sands oil, the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, must stay in the ground. “In a climate constrained world,” says Hudema, “there’s no place for this type of development.”
In a way, the whole tar sands issue uniquely positions Canada to take a strong stand on the question of climate change, yet its leadership shows no signs of doing so. Thus the rally in Quebec is more an opening salvo than anything else. There are other big events on the horizon: the Climate Summit of the Americas in Toronto in July, October’s federal elections, and the UN climate conference in December.
If climate change activists hope to unseat Harper, whom Bonin calls “the worst premier in history in terms of his inaction on climate change,” they will need as diverse a coalition as possible. Quebec isn’t necessarily known for its large rallies, but Bonin expects a strong turnout. “There’s a willingness among unions, NGOs, and First Nations to come together to plan for the coming years,” he says.