Why Trudeau Is Not the Climate Champion the World Thinks He Is

Image courtesy of Office of the President of the United States, © 2017.

Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau has been heralded as an environmentally progressive leader; however, his support for the Keystone XL pipeline is a black-mark on his liberal climate-conscious reputation. By championing the pipeline, he contradicts not only his environmental priorities but also his commitment to social justice.

Compared to his predecessor, Trudeau certainly looks like a climate champion. He brought Canada back into United Nations climate change negotiations, which culminated in the December 2015 Paris Agreement. He has also increased government funding for clean technology programs and established a Low Carbon Economy Fund, which will dedicate funds to projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Canada.

Trudeau claims that investing in the Keystone pipeline will bolster the Canadian economy, which in turn will enable more investment in clean energy solutions. He has approved two previous oil pipelines with the caveat that construction must adhere to strict environmental standards. However, no matter how environmentally-friendly the construction of an oil pipeline, pipelines inherently contribute to global warming by adding to global supplies of oil. In addition to environmental hazards, drilling the oil sands poses a human health hazard. Because chemicals used in drilling can seep into the ground, there is risk of groundwater contamination, which could pollute drinking water for both animals and humans.

Trudeau believes that he can be both pro-environment and pro-Keystone, but those two positions cannot go hand-in-hand. He tried to sway former President Obama to approve the Keystone project by offering to enforce stricter environmental regulations surrounding oil production and transport, but those regulations would not address greenhouse gas emissions nor long-term concern for the environment. Obama, who spent much of his time in office focusing on climate change, was not swayed. Now that Trump is President, Trudeau has less incentive to cement these regulations as a bargaining chip to implement the Keystone project.

Canada’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), the country’s goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions submitted under the Paris Agreement, is extremely unambitious. Canada’s NDC states that by 2030, it will cut emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels of greenhouse gas release. Canada is not on track to meet this target, and the additional emissions released from oil pumped through the Keystone pipeline will steer Canada even further off target. In contrast, China, the world’s most populated country and a developing nation, is on track to achieve its NDC goal of cutting emissions by 60-65 percent below 2005 levels – which were significantly higher than Canada’s –by 2030.

The pipeline could bring in an additional 2.4 billion dollars of revenue per year for the Canadian economy, but at what expense for Trudeau domestically? A majority of Canadians, 84 percent, support limiting Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions and 56 percent believe that climate change is actively harming people. Furthermore, the Keystone XL pipeline is a project closely associated with Trump, whose an anti-climate, anti-environmental stance is well documented. It is notable that 63 percent of Canadians believe that the Trump administration will have a negative effect on Canada. Trudeau must realize that by aligning himself with Trump and supporting the Keystone project, he could lose popularity among Canadians and damage his credibility.

It is highly likely that Trump’s policies will substantially weaken the United States’ currently mediocre NDC. With the cuts that Trump will likely make to the Environmental Protection Agency’s climate change mitigation programs and – in particular – the Clean Power Plan, global climate champions will have one less tool to combat a substantial increase in carbon emissions over the next five years. At a time when the world cannot afford any more environmental damage, Trudeau, who prides himself on his environmental legacy, risks signing off on irreversible global damage.

Emma O’Malley is the Environmental & Energy Politics Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). She also works at an environmental non-governmental organization that focuses on international ocean preservation. Prior to her current role, Emma worked for a DC think tank, specializing in energy politics. Emma earned her BS in environmental sciences and international relations from the University of Virginia.

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