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Canada and Climate in the G7:
Reconciling Global Commitments with Domestic Compliance
Brittaney Warren, G7 Research Group, June 9, 2021
The Cornwall Summit on June 11-13, 2021, will be Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau's fifth G7 summit. Once German chancellor Angela Merkel leaves, Trudeau, at 49 years old, will become the G7's longest-serving veteran. In 2018, Trudeau hosted the G7 summit, in his French-speaking and home province of Quebec, in the picturesque town of Charlevoix on the banks of the beluga whale habitat of the St. Lawrence River. Trudeau led a mostly successful summit for climate change, but was largely constrained by U.S. president Donald Trump's uncooperative spirit.
At Charlevoix, Trudeau succeeded in getting 15% of the G7's public declarations dedicated to the subject of climate change, a high point in the G7's history of climate governance. He secured advances on oceans, while acknowledging oceans as a critical climate sink. But on both climate change and oceans he could not get Trump on board, and on oceans Japan followed the U.S., effectively creating a G6 on climate and an even less cohesive G5 on oceans.
At Cornwall, Trudeau will continue to build on his international climate agenda, by supporting the full implementation of the Paris Agreement, including its stronger 1.5°C target that Canada championed during the United Nations climate negotiations in 2015 for COP21's Paris Agreement. Yet despite Canada's strong rhetoric on climate change and in some cases real efforts, such as for a nationwide carbon tax, its actions on the domestic front do not live up to its words.
Canada is the only G7 member whose emissions have risen since the 2015 Paris Agreement was signed. Its compliance with its G7 climate commitments is 76%. This is technically above the overall average of 74%, but is still in the B-grade range. Many would point to Canada's almost unwavering support for its oil and gas sector, whose workers still await a strong plan for a just transition, with no direct funding in the country's recent budget to that effect. The infamous oil sands in Canada's prairies were not so long ago found, by Canada's own government scientists, to be the worst source of air pollution in North America. The Canadian government's efforts to expand such operations are highly impactful, including such operations as Enbridge's Line 5 that would lock in harmful emissions for decades to come while risking the health of the world's largest source of accessible freshwater, located in the cross-border Great Lakes region, in an age when global heating and water commodification is running rivers dry. To this can be added the ongoing felling of old growth forests on Canada's west coast, where ancient trees up to 2,000 years old — mega carbon storers — are being legally logged.
This legal logging is occurring on traditional Indigenous territory, whose occupants oppose the destruction of ancient living forests. Globally, Indigenous peoples make up less than 5% of the population. But they protect 80% of the world's biodiversity. Canada's Constitution contains a provision to consult with Indigenous peoples on national infrastructure projects it wants to construct on their lands. Canada is also a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) that stipulates free, prior and informed consent. Biodiversity and climate change go hand in hand: how we use natural resources and the land can create either a virtuous or vicious cycle.
On May 23, at the G7 environment ministers' meeting, Canadian environment and climate change minister Jonathan Wilkinson agreed to 183 commitments, as identified by the G7 Research Group, in the long G7 communiqué. In their declaration, all ministers agreed on the need for environmental justice, including for workers and including on respecting Indigenous land rights. The ministers emphasized the "intrinsic" links between the nature and climate crises. They committed to "ensure that the actions we take maximise the opportunities to solve these crises in parallel." From this, they confirmed a dual 2030 target — to make their 2030 climate ambitions consistent with a 1.5°C temperature rise and to reverse rapidly rising biodiversity loss within the same timeline.
For the G7 to achieve these targets, it will need to put the right mechanisms in place. Early research from the G7 Research Group strongly suggests that institutional design is the strongest predictor of improved compliance with the G7's climate commitments. In the past, when the G7 created a climate/environment official level body, compliance with its climate change commitments in the year following that summit was at least 20% higher than it was in the years when no such body was established. Another powerful positive indicator is the presence of an environment ministerial meeting ahead of the leaders' summit. Correlation is not causation, but it is a start.
From this, a key missing piece concerns who is at the ministerial and the summit table and how much power they have at home, to fulfill both their agreed global commitments. Do the environment ministers have the political weight and mandate to pave the way for the "nature positive and climate-resilient" world they say they seek on the international stage when they go home after their and their leaders' work abroad ends?
For Canada, the answer is no. Canada's natural resources minister, Seamus O'Regan, has mandates over Canada's natural resources and purview over oil and gas, mining, forestry and drinking water. Yet the natural resource ministers do not meet under the G7 umbrella. Canada's natural resource ministers' mandate explicitly includes a task to expand oil and gas operations. Directly contradicting this is the mandate for Canada's environment and climate change minister to "strengthen … greenhouse gas reducing measures."
Against this domestic backdrop of contradictory mandates, and alongside deforestation of ancient trees, how can Canada meet its climate and biodiversity targets quickly enough? Even with its leadership on a carbon tax, a coal phase-out, increased protected areas on land and in the oceans, and a mandate for its environment and natural resource ministers to work together on planting new trees and expanding clean transportation, the emissions and pollution from the implementation of the ministerial mandate to expand fossil fuels, which requires land clearing, alongside legal non-regenerative logging practices, pose a real risk that the positive movement on other fronts will be cancelled out and that global climate goals will be overshot.
This story is likely similar for other G7 members. Moving forward, the G7 should create a regular stand-alone meeting of its natural resource ministers and joint meetings between them and the environment ministers. Starting at Cornwall, it should also create an official level body to start the work of creating a harmonized roadmap, including between siloed ministries and with short-term targets and benchmarks, that reconcile climate goals with natural resource use needs. The G7 should save a permanent seat at the table for Indigenous leaders from each G7 country.
Nature is a non-substitutable partner that is needed to reverse the rising trend of emissions, which have now reached 419 parts per million, the highest in human history. Nature matters for health, too. It has become ever more clear that a consistent root cause of global pandemics is the destruction of nature. This destruction also does great damage to physical and mental health. Humans are part of nature, not separate from it or dominant over it. We need nature for our health and well-being. It is imperative that Canada and the other G7 members catch their short-sightedness and realize that it is not enough to invest in renewables with one hand and fell ancient forests and threaten drinking water with the other. All planetary destructive behaviour must end, lest other good efforts be in vain.
For more on the G7's governance of climate change, see Improving G7 Performance on Climate Change and also G7 UK: The 2021 Cornwall Summit.
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