Charting a path to reduce emissions

·5 min read

A week ago, the Canadian government rolled out its new climate plan, which, for the first time, created a path for the country to achieve its international emissions reduction commitments.

The blueprint outlines $15 billion in spending to address everything from home energy efficiency to the electrification of transit. It also aims to increase the country’s benchmark for the price on carbon to $170 per tonne by 2030.

This week, Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson spoke to the Free Press about Ottawa’s strategy. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Free Press: Local transit is struggling financially because of low ridership during the COVID-19 pandemic. How can you convince the City of Winnipeg to invest in the infrastructure needed to electrify Transit, if subsidies just aren’t enough to sweeten the pot?

Jonathan Wilkinson: There are two different elements of funding that we will be working on with municipalities.

One is we’ve indicated we will be establishing a permanent public transit fund. I think all of the large municipalities that have significant transit systems in Canada have been very appreciative of the federal government saying we will essentially establish something that will provide them long-term visibility on funding.

The second piece is around the electrification of busses, in particular. There is money in the Canadian Infrastructure Bank, about $2 billion that was dedicated for that. It may well be the case some transit systems will think about the time frame within which they want to do that. And it may be a little bit more extended, given some of the challenges they face with COVID. But it’s an important way to reduce emissions associated with the transit system.

Obviously, we’re looking to make transit more available. To be honest, for Manitoba, it’s a big economic opportunity given that you have (bus maker) NFI Group Inc. located there.

FP: Winnipeg lacks an organic waste program, with the city only recently committing to a lengthy pilot project. How will the federal government go about working with different levels of government that aren’t even keeping pace with the simplest emissions reductions?

JW: We will be bringing into place regulations around landfills. Essentially requiring that landfills will be capturing the methane that is emitted from them and, of course, that’s from the decomposition of organic waste.

More generally, what we would like to see is the move towards a more circular economy — where you actually are ensuring you’re separating out different kinds of what we currently think of as waste material, so that it can be reused.

Organics can be reused in a whole range of ways. We need to do the same thing with plastics. At the end of the day, we need to stop thinking about waste as waste, and think about it as resources and think about how we’re going to use those resources.

FP: This fall, the Free Press has reported on the loss of traditional ways of life in First Nations communities across northern Manitoba due to climate change. Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee said a lot of the damage is already done, with more to come. He even went as far as to suggest compensation should be on the table from the country’s biggest polluters. Creating indigenous protected areas is good, but is unlikely to solve the problem of what’s already been lost. How does all of this fit into the country’s process of striving for reconciliation?

JW: I think the grand chief is right that some of the damage is done. But if we do not address the issue of carbon emissions in a very bold way, here and around the world, it’s just going to get worse.

The unfortunate reality is we’re going to have to adapt to some of the changes we’re already seeing. We will be coming forward in the new year with some more thoughts about adaptation programming. Canada does not have a national adaptation strategy right now, one of the only countries in the G7 that does not. That would be focused, in particular, on areas where we are seeing the greatest change.

The plan we announced last week is about trying to address and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions so we’re not making that problem worse. As you say, conservation and protected areas… certainly those lands and waters are being impacted by the effects of climate change. We will be working with Indigenous peoples on that.

FP: In response to the proposed raising of the carbon tax, provincial Conservation and Climate Minister Sarah Guillemard said Manitoba will be pursuing a local plan that will have a low, flat carbon tax. How do you respond to that?

JW: We will be discussing with provinces the path forward with respect to pricing. We have said we will be consulting with them over the first few months of 2021. But I will say it’s important we have a national approach. Certainly, provinces have the flexibility to implement their own system, so long as they meet the federal benchmark, but they clearly need to meet the federal benchmark.

FP: The plan gives Canada a path toward actually reaching Paris Agreement, signed in 2016, targets by 2030. Why did it take five years to put such a plan in place?

JW: When this Liberal government came to power in 2015, there had been basically nothing done with respect to addressing climate change for 10 years. Canada had agreed to a target, but it had no plan.

One of the very first things the government did was develop the Pan-Canadian Framework. That allowed us to make significant progress. But it was always very clear it didn’t get us to the target. We were always going to be short.

What we have done here is build on the work done in the plan announced in 2016, adding additional measures to ensure we are actually providing a very detailed pathway to the target and beyond the target. We will need to go beyond what we announced Dec. 11.

We will need to do that. All countries will need to do better. But it provides the baseline on which we can achieve our existing target and start to think about setting a more aggressive target.

Sarah Lawrynuik, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press