10 Years Of Canadian Climate (In)Action Shows We Didn't Get Much Done

TORONTO — The last decade was perhaps the most important for climate change yet. 

And Canada stumbled hard right out of the gate.

At the 2009 United Nations Copenhagen climate conference, Canada was named Fossil of the Year for being “the absolute worst country at the talks.” The dishonour, bestowed by a coalition of hundreds of environmental groups, called out the obstructionist nature of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government. 

The Guardian dubbed Canada the “dirty old man of the climate world” for its ongoing support of Alberta’s oilsands and its offer to cut greenhouse-gas emissions a “pathetic” three per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. 

“Copenhagen was a shit show,” Dale Marshall, Environmental Defence’s national climate program manager, told HuffPost Canada. 

Marshall, who attended the UN conference, said it was frustrating to see Canadian delegates oppose progressive action. That included motions to  acknowledge Indigenous Peoples as nations with the right to manage their traditional lands and measures to prevent deforestation in tropical countries like Brazil, the Congo and Indonesia.

Watch: UN chief warns of ‘point of no return’ on climate change. Story continues below.


“(Canada’s) negotiators went there and threw grenades,” Marshall said. “They would take positions that were contrary to climate action, introduce tactics to slow things down, side with the worst actors in the world — always in a very understated Canadian way.” 

Copenhagen showed the world how far Canada had strayed from its image as a leader on environmental issues. A decade later, after plenty more failures and setbacks, the country is only now beginning to restore its reputation.

These are some of the key moments that got us where we are:

Pulling back the curtain

Canada’s green reputation was built up over many years. In 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney held one of the first international conferences on the environment in Toronto. And in 1997, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien committed to the Kyoto Protocol

But while the country looked good from the outside, the story at home was more complicated. Neither prime minister lowered subsidies to the oil-and-gas industry in Newfoundland or Alberta, and neither put in place economic measures like a carbon tax, said Silvia Maciunas, a senior research fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and co-author of the article “The Evolution of Canada’s International and Domestic Climate Policy. 

Canada’s greenhouse emissions rose close to 20 per cent from 1990 to 2017, according to federal data

“The (Canadian) government tended to speak very positively at international negotiations, but when they came back they found it was hard to implement policies because there wasn’t broad-based support for climate action,” Maciunas said in an interview. 

“That changed when the Harper government came into power because it didn’t put forward strong measures internationally or at home.” 

Copenhagen was a quintessential UN conference. World leaders were supposed to lay the groundwork for what would come after the Kyoto Protocol expired in 2012. Instead, countries including Canada agreed to a non-binding deal that didn’t set new targets.  

It was difficult for Canadian activists to slice through the complicated, plodding nature of UN negotiations to show people why the deal was such a failure, said Marshall. Harper’s government also attempted to spin its own reluctance, insisting that it had to work in Canada’s best interests

“This may be a shock, but the negotiators Canada assigns to international negotiations (like Copenhagen) are there to represent the interests of Canada, not the interests of Mali,” Harper said in the House of Commons in November 2009.

So activists called in backup: documentarians and professional activist hoaxsters, The Yes Men.  

Together, in a secret “bunker” in Copenhagen, Yes Men Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum planned to trick the Canadian public into believing for just a moment that their government was finally taking climate change seriously.

The group released an official-looking press-conference video on Dec. 14, 2009, in the middle of the talks. The supposed “deputy assistant secretary” to Canada’s environment minister stood before a stack of beer crates disguised as a podium and announced the unthinkable: Canada would cut emissions by 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. 

He added that Canada would give 1 per cent of its GDP to help developing countries adapt to climate change — remarks echoed in press releases posted to an imitation Environment Canada website and “picked up” by a phoney Wall Street Journal article. 


“It wasn’t (that) what they were calling for was that radical,” said Marshall. “It was radical to a Canadian government that was trying to do everything it could to undermine progress.”

The hoax caught the world’s attention, including media in the U.S., U.K., France and China, forcing Canada to clarify it would do no such thing. 

“It embarrassed Canada on the world stage, and it can be really important to embarrass the government,” said Bichlbaum, whose stunt became part of the documentary The Yes Men Are Revolting. “It was fun to catch them off guard and show them as completely vulnerable. 

“The vulnerability of power is a good message for us to remember.” 

In the international spotlight

In 2011, Harper’s government withdrew from the Kyoto Protocol — the only player to do so. 

Government officials’ reasoning was that Canada wasn’t going to meet its target and would’ve been required to pay $14 billion in penalties — but to the international community it signalled an “abdication of responsibility,” Maciunas wrote in her article.


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The next major UN climate conference was Paris in 2015. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had just unseated Harper and told world leaders that “Canada is back.” His government sent 300 delegates and committed to its current target to cut greenhouse-gas emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. 

Catherine Abreu, now executive director of Climate Change Action Network Canada, was at Paris and said her international colleagues were “thrilled” to have Canada participate in a meaningful way.  

“There was a palpable sense of relief,” Abreu said in an interview. 

But even the Paris accord was not enough to halt global warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, said Abreu. “It’s an interesting position to be in, to have this historic agreement that is falling so short of where you want to be.” 

Back home, Trudeau’s government established the landmark Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change — a plan to transition homes and cars to renewable fuel, phase out coal and move toward a tax on emitters of $50 per tonne of carbon dioxide by 2022.

However, the oil-and-gas sector continues to play a significant role in Canada’s economy and in 2017 was the top emitter of greenhouse gases, contributing 27 per cent of national emissions. The Liberals support energy projects such as the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline and have yet to decide whether they’ll cut back on industry subsidies or approve a proposed $20.6-billion oilsands mine in northern Alberta. 

“If we continue to ignore the root cause of climate change — extraction and combustion of fossil fuels — we’re going to keep missing the mark,” said Abreu.

Canada is not on track to meet its targets unless it raises its carbon tax dramatically and stops expanding its oil industry. A recent UN report found that Canada’s current level of fossil-fuel production already makes it challenging to substantially reduce emissions, nevermind if the country increases oil production 60 per cent by 2040, as predicted by the National Energy Board.

Watch: Environment minister talks about Canada’s climate targets. Story continues below.


Mounting evidence that we are f****d

Since 2009, the impacts of global warming have become increasingly obvious. 

In the early 2010s, scientists reported that Arctic sea ice is melting faster than expected, marine life is under threat, weather is getting harder to predict and polar bears and butterflies are dying. There was concern about the future of hockey rinks, Canadian wine and Olympic venues alongside misplaced optimism that Toronto would be transformed into a Miami of the north by the end of the century. 

Soon the warnings grew more urgent. In 2017, 15,000 scientists joined together to call on the world to act on climate change. Research has indicated the Great Barrier Reef is dying, Lyme disease is on the rise and glaciers are retreating at an unprecedented rate. 

This year, Canadian scientists concluded that the country is warming rapidly, resulting in more frequent and intense forest fires, snow and ice cover, rainfall and droughts as well as rising sea levels. 

Canada saw record-setting forest fires that razed 2,400 homes in Fort McMurray, Alta. in 2016 and more than 12,000 square kilometres of bush across B.C. the following year. Flooding in Quebec this year forced 6,000 residents to evacuate their homes, and that followed another “100-year flood” in 2017. Western Canada was hit with an extreme drought in 2015, leading Alberta to declare an agricultural disaster. 

Despite the evidence and increasingly dire warnings, the latest climate conference in Madrid was decried by Canadian environmentalists and many politicians.

“These negotiations were supposed to deliver a clear, resounding call for more ambitious emissions targets and financing for climate vulnerable countries already experiencing the devastating impacts of the climate crisis,” said Abreu in a statement following the so-called COP25 summit.  

Yet participants, including Canada, did not set new, more ambitious emission targets or establish a country-to-country trading system for carbon that would have seen heavy emitters pay a price for their share of global pollution.

“On every issue of significance, COP25 has delivered a mediocre or non-outcome that betrays the millions of people around the world calling for real climate action,” said Abreu.

But wait, there’s hope

A fundamental shift has taken place in the minds of Canadians over the past year, said Marshall.

It started in the fall of 2018, when the UN released its annual report on climate change that stated the world had 12 years — soon to be 10 — to address climate change or risk catastrophe.

“For reasons I don’t entirely understand — maybe because people were also feeling the impacts, the floods, the forest fires in their own backyards — this report penetrated the Canadian psyche in a way no other research has,” Marshall said. 

That same year, teen activist Greta Thunberg began striking outside the Swedish parliament, demanding action. Thanks to social media, she sparked a global movement inspiring young people to skip school and hit the streets to demand action alongside their older allies. 

This September, half a million protesters showed up in Montreal alone, and hundreds of thousands demonstrated in other cities. 

Climate change was a major issue in the 2019 federal election. Canadians are taking the federal government and Ontario to court for not taking charge and putting their futures at risk.

After a decade of false starts, the momentum is building. And people are talking about it.

“We’ve entered a new era of climate mobilization that is building the sort of collective response and community that we need in order to actually tackle this problem and has created an appetite for a new level of coverage,” said Abreu.

“Those are the things that give me hope.”

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