[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It was just over one year ago, as everybody began to realize just how long the pandemic would last, that many of us began hunting for silver linings. We were searching for any evidence that good news, some kind of good news might come from the terrifying situation we were in. And we found some!
News Clip 1: Now one very rare, positive effect of the past few months has been on the environment. The biggest ever reduction in the volume of carbon dioxide released into the world’s atmosphere has been recorded since March.
News Clip 2: With travel restrictions amid the COVID-19 pandemic having emptied the waters off Hong Kong, Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins, also known as Chinese white dolphins or pink dolphins, have come back to the quieter area.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: If there was one positive from this disaster, we hoped maybe it would give us proof that we could indeed [00:01:00] change in ways that could help save the planet. That we could act quickly on a global scale to change the course of the climate crisis. We hoped that the images of clear canals and blue skies free from smog could be the case kick in the rear that we needed to finally take this crisis seriously.
Fast forward to today, over the past month, the United States and Canada, and some other lucky countries with enough vaccines have begun making climate plans for a world beyond COVID. So now it’s fair to ask this question: did we learn enough? Did we take to heart those clear skies and seas, and also the actions of our governments who proved that they could roll out program after program at a speed most of us had thought impossible? In other words, are we really [00:02:00] coming out of this pandemic better equipped to fight the climate battle, and who is best equipped to lead that charge?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Catherine Abreu is the executive director of Climate Action Network Canada. Hello, Catherine.
Catherine Abreu: Hi, how are ya?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Good! We have, um, a lot to talk about on the climate front today, but before we get into it, just to kind of set the stage, uh, for the big picture of our discussion. Do you remember a year ago or so at this time, when we were in the first, uh, few terrifying weeks of lockdown, and one of the few positive things seemed to be all the stories of how nature was healing and climate change was getting better with us all locked up?
Catherine Abreu: Of course, how could I forget? That was a really incredible moment of all of us kind of reconnecting with the non-human world.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How do you feel about that now? You know, um, given [00:03:00] that we’ve gone through a year of this, was that sort of a false promise at the beginning, a sign of what we might learn? Like from, from your point of view, what was that?
Catherine Abreu: So, you know, I think there were, at the time, a lot of, um, hopes that this might be, you know, the turning point that really reset our agenda. And, uh, and we might be able to kind of capture some of the changes in the non-human world that we were experiencing in those lockdown days, uh, and lock them in for the longer term. And I think we have actually seen a real step change in the kind of level of ambition that a lot of jurisdictions are bringing to the climate conversation now at the end of a year of pandemic experience.
And we saw a lot of that happen last week in relation to the earth day climate summit, that president Biden hosted. Um, you know, was is it this miraculous moment where everything changed and nothing will be the same again? Maybe not quite that [00:04:00] drastic, but I do think, uh, people were reminded of what it’s like to, uh, exist in a world that isn’t bombarded by constant pollution, where humans aren’t constantly invading nonhuman habitats, um, to kind of extract what we need. And I think that reminder has been really useful for folks, even just this like feeling of wanting to get out for our daily walks and commune with nature. I do think that that’s stuck.
But then I think that there are also some like interesting things that we’ve learned that we need to take into the future of our work on climate change in particular, but also other environmental crises. And I think we’ve learned a few things about how governments work that we need to be able- expecting them to take into other, uh, other work on crises like climate change.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What, to your mind, um, was the biggest thing we learned? Maybe not even during those initial few weeks, but [00:05:00] during the months that followed, like what are the lessons that could actually help us here?
Catherine Abreu: So one of the first ones that I think we really should be keeping in mind on the climate front is where emissions are coming from. So in those early lockdown days, most of us stopped doing pretty much anything, right? The flights were grounded around the world, people weren’t driving their cars. Mostly folks were staying at home, working from home, and not engaging in some of those kinds of greenhouse gas intensive activities that we otherwise might be engaging in, in our daily lives. And over the course of that time, global emissions fell dramatically, but not as much as you might expect.
Uh, emissions full- fell by just around 17% in those early months of the lockdown. And that’s a really important lesson because what does, what does it tell us? It tells us that this myth, that climate change is a result of our individual personal [00:06:00] actions, is untrue. And that actually the vast majority of our emissions are coming from large industrial sources controlled by for-profit corporations that we really have very little direct control over personally. So I think that’s one big lesson that we can take away from the last year.
And the other is we got to see what it looks like for governments to act like they’re in an emergency. We have seen huge fundamental policy shifts, like, over, you know, in some ways complete overhauls of the ways in which our society works. And it’s happened in the blink of an eye. And so we’ve learned what it is like for governments to respond rapidly to a crisis, to communicate with Canadians or their constituents more broadly, about what that change means, how it’s affecting them, to also figure out how to course correct. [00:07:00] Cause that’s a really important thing when it comes to addressing things like climate change, right? You’re putting policies forward, but maybe they’re not going to do the trick right away. So you have to be able to figure out whether they’re working, and if they’re not working, do something differently. And we’ve been seeing governments do that over the course of the last year.
And we have seen the scale of policy, regulatory interventions, and also investments. Money on the table, uh, that it takes to address this kind of crisis. And these are all lessons that I think we should be, um, holding dear and expecting our governments to behave similarly, in response to things like the climate crisis.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Have you seen, uh, governments or even, uh, parties who may not be in government take that lesson? You know, um, you mentioned, uh, the Biden administration, uh, held a day, I know there’ve been some recent announcements in Canada. When you look at those announcements, have they learned from what you just described, like we can do bigger and more ambitious things [00:08:00] more quickly? Like, are you seeing that reflected in the new policy?
Catherine Abreu: So a big focus of Biden’s climate summit on earth day was pushing governments to come- the governments that he had invited to the summit, about 40 heads of state from around the world, to come to the table with more ambitious targets, climate targets in particular. So we saw how much the window of what is possible, what ambition looks like, has shifted in the relatively near past. So we saw the US administration come with a new target to reduce emissions 50 to 52% by 2030, the UK talking about an emissions reduction, a new emissions reduction goal to reduce by 78% below 1990 levels by 2035.
So, you know, these are really big numbers that are being put on the table by some of our closest allies and trading partners. [00:09:00] Canada came to that summit and announced a new climate goal for 2030, which is to reduce emissions between 40 and 45%, below 2005 levels by 2030. Our previous goal was to reduce 30- emissions 30% in that timeframe.
And so, you know, it’s good to see Canada, um, hearing this call to increase ambition. Uh, we also know that Canada is backing up some of those numbers with some really detailed plans on how to get there. But we also know that that 40 to 45% range is not Canada’s fair share of the effort to hold warming to 1.5 degrees.
And so, we need to keep up this habit of ratcheting up the ambition of those targets ,over time. And that means that we need to have some pretty functional climate governance here in Canada. It’s not just about targets and plans. It’s also about what holds us accountable to those targets and plans.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: That was going to be my next question about this government, which, you know, we’ve spoken to you [00:10:00] before, uh, we’ve spoken to Katharine Hayhoe, who is somebody we love to talk to about, uh, climate and Canada. And what I always wonder is how often the actual actions match up to the targets we’ve set. So take this liberal government, for example, who has been held, I guess, by default, as the leading party, uh, the leading major party on climate. Um, are they doing enough to achieve what they say they’re going to do?
Catherine Abreu: One of the things that’s happened over the course of the last two weeks, it’s been a real, uh, avalanche of climate news, I would say, in the last couple of weeks. One of the things that happened in this over the course of these two busy weeks is that we saw Canada file its national inventory report. So this is the annual report that Canada files to talk about where our emissions are at. Uh, and always the emissions data that we have is about 18 months delayed, and so the data they reported on here was from 2019.
With that [00:11:00] report, we saw Canada’s emissions today are about the same as they were in 2005, which is our baseline year for reducing emissions. There, they were 1% lower in 2019, and they were in 2005, which means, wow, do we ever have a lot of work to do.
Uh, and we have a lot of catching up to do because there was a, you know, a relative decade of federal inaction on the issue of climate change before the current administration stepped in. And so not only are they having to implement their own policies, but they’re having to make up for a lot of less- lost time.
That being said, we haven’t really seen this bending of the curve and emissions reductions with the current government that I think many of us were hoping to. And, uh, while they’ve put a lot of good policies on the table, um, including, uh, uh, you know, rising carbon price that we’ve now heard will go to $170 per time by 2030, which is a real world leading carbon price.
[00:12:00] We’ve also seen some of their, all other policies implemented more slowly or with as, with not as much stringency as they were promised. So the clean fuel standard, for instance, which is hoping to reduce emissions from some of the fuels that we use has been delayed by a number of years. The stringency of methane emissions regulations, uh, which were promised a number of years ago, were weakened over the course of their implementation.
And so those are the things that we’re going to have to really watch out for and that, um, uh, functional climate law that we might have in something like Bill C-12, uh, could help us keep better track of our performance on those things, um, and provide more transparency to Canadians on how we’re doing.
The other thing we’re going to have to do is, is ask some pretty serious questions about our oil and gas sector, the fastest and largest growing source of emissions in this country. And we haven’t seen a climate plan that’s been able to tackle that yet.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Can you explain Bill C-12, just briefly for people who don’t understand it?
Catherine Abreu: What is Bill C-12, it’s, [00:13:00] uh, also called the Net Zero Accountability Act. It is this piece of legislation that is designed to not only enshrine that commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050 in law, but to also kind of codify this process of setting climate targets. Breaking those targets down into incremental, near term, uh, bundles, so five-year milestones, and setting up the process for making plans to meet those targets, and communicating on how those plans are progressing. And we’re hoping it becomes improved and then becomes the law of the land in Canada because, uh, not only do we need some targets and plans, but we need to make sure that that happens in a consistent way and that Canadians get some insight into what steps their governments are taking it are not taking to address this challenge.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So speaking of politicking, one of the other pieces of news on climate we had in the last couple of weeks, is the federal Conservative party, [00:14:00] um, revamped, or I should say vamped because I’m not sure what was there before, uh, their climate plan. And I’d love to hear from you, first what you think of the plan in a vacuum, um, just to be objective about it, but then also, uh, how much of a step forward it is for the conservatives? And if it can put some pressure on the Liberals to do more?
Catherine Abreu: If we look at this plan in a vacuum, we see that it is really not presenting the level of ambition where even current government is at. And so this is a plan to get close, that’s how they talk about it, get close to reaching that target that was set by the Harper government to reduce emissions 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.
And it doesn’t talk about that ramping up schedule that I mentioned earlier, which the rest of the world that has signed onto the Paris Agreement is on, because that’s what the Paris Agreement tells me, tells us we have to [00:15:00] do. And so the level of ambition is off. There are some really interesting ideas in there um, I spoke earlier about, uh, the need to address emissions from our fuels, from our transportation sector. Transportation is, uh, one of the, it is the second largest source of emissions in Canada, and the Conservative climate plan put forward some interesting ideas around a zero emissions vehicle mandate. Um, and, and I think there’s some, some quality stuff to take a look at there.
However, they didn’t do the thing that is a big gap in all of our other climate plans, which is talk about how to tackle the largest source of emissions in Canada, the oil and gas emissions from oil and gas production. Uh, and rather that plan talks a lot about how oil and gas production is going to continue in Canada and doesn’t need to change and will be a part of our climate solutions. And while I think the workers in the oil and gas sector in [00:16:00] Canada will be a part of climate solutions in this country, um, the reality is that that sector is going to decline over the course of the next couple of decades. And I think a plan that avoids that reality is, uh, is missing the mark. But the Conservatives again are not alone in missing that mark.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What about as a, um, political tool to either, uh, encourage maybe lapsed Conservative voters, that, that they are getting serious on the environment, or as I mentioned to, uh, put the screws a little bit to the Liberals who, you know, we’ve talked about on this show in the past, um, have gotten a number of votes simply by lack of a plan on the Conservative side.
Catherine Abreu: So plan’s not just enough, right? We also need to be seeing the intent to take action.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Catherine Abreu: And that is the question for me. Um, the Conservatives with this plan have now put forward a modeled plan where we can see what emissions reductions they’re anticipating to [00:17:00] get from that plan. They’ve never done that before, and that’s a good move. They’ve also included a carbon pricing system in their plan for all of their resistance to carbon pricing over the course of the last few years in Canada. Um, they’ve now put a carbon pricing system in their own plan. And so it’s good to see the Conservatives have kind of now met the other political parties in Canada by having a plan with modeled emissions reductions that also includes some carbon pricing.
However, have they signaled to us that they have the real intention to act on climate change? And for me, I’m not feeling that confidence yet. So we saw with the Conservative Convention a number of weeks ago, that there was a motion table to have the Conservative Party of Canada acknowledge that climate change is real and take a certain amount of actions to confront it. That motion did not pass in the Conservative Convention, unfortunately.
And then the day after they tabled their plan, the Conservative Party of Canada stood up in the House of Commons on a debate around Bill C-12, this key piece of climate [00:18:00] legislation that we want all parties to be working together to improve, and they tabled a motion to kill that bill.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Oh.
Catherine Abreu: And so I, I’m curious whether, um, they are reflecting on their actions and seeing whether their actions match the rhetoric that they’re putting forward with their new climate plan.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Given all of what we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks, from Biden to our own targets to the Conservative plan, are you optimistic, uh, that momentum is building? And I don’t ask that as a leading question, ’cause this is something I, uh, go back and forth on a lot, myself.
Catherine Abreu: Momentum’s building. So you know, you and I have been talking about climate change in Canada for a couple of years now. And I think over the course of our conversations, even, we’ve seen some really significant shifts. We’ve seen a whole sea change in the ways in which average citizens are mobilizing around the issue of climate change.
We’ve seen climate change, which has traditionally been a very partisan polarized [00:19:00] issue in Canada, become the key election issue in 2019. We’ve now seen the Conservative Party of Canada agree that it is an issue that they need to have some serious thinking on. And so now most of our political parties have put forward serious thinking on what needs to be done on climate change. Maybe they’re not all, uh, yet at the level where they’re. They have the conviction that they need to take the scale of action that’s required. However, it’s good to see that polarization shifting in this country.
And we have seen internationally that the expectations of what climate leadership means and what climate action needs to take place, uh, has really exponentially grown. And so I do think that given all of those pieces, we can feel good about the momentum that’s taking place here in Canada and around the globe.
Over the course of that time, of course, we have also seen the impacts of climate change escalating [00:20:00] dramatically. More and more people displaced from their homes from floods and wildfires, more and more people at risk in their health, or even dying from heat days or extreme weather. And so, um, as we see this momentum continue to build, we also need to understand that there’s been so much inaction for so long, uh, that there’s way more we always have to, do and that we need to be taking care of people as we take that action, and as folks are really confronted with what the realities of climate change mean for them in their lives.
And so, um, I am seeing the momentum and I feel buoyed by that, but I am also seeing the challenges and the real human suffering, uh, that is coming along with the climate crisis. And so, um, the fight is not over, that is for sure.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How do we keep the momentum that, not necessarily on climate change, but the momentum that we discovered during [00:21:00] this pandemic that you spoke about earlier, you know, the idea that big things can get done at a speed that we never thought was possible in our government. How do we, because I know, um, or at least I think, and you can tell me if you think I’m wrong, but, but when the majority of people are vaccinated, I think there will be a tendency to want to just like breathe for a while and not fight so hard just to, you know, make things better. And how do you capture the momentum that we found during this pandemic and apply it to climate change when people want to get back to normal?
Catherine Abreu: I think number one, getting back to normal is something that I am not sure everyone does want. We may want to have the kind of freedoms that we had in the past, be able to hug our friends and family, be able to gather with people in large numbers without fear. But do we want the same kinds of broken economic and social systems that led us to this crisis in the first place?
I don’t think [00:22:00] so. People want change. And I think a lot of folks were awakened to the need for change over the course of the last year, as well as a lot of people being awoken to the fact that our own health and well-being is inextricably tied to the health and wellbeing of the non-human world. COVID 19 is a zoonotic disease and the prevalence and, and frequency of zoonotic diseases is only going to increase as humans continue to encroach on, uh, non-human ecological spaces. And so, I think there’s been a good lesson learned there as well.
Um, how do we, how do we hold onto that, as folks are getting vaccinated and, and, and trying to kind of have those reunited exciting moments with, with friends and family? While we remind ourselves that we have to hold our expectations of government high, and we have to hold them accountable to those high expectations.
So, right now, I think governments have been hearing the [00:23:00] call for rapid response for big transformational change. And they have been following that call. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we individually have to now commit ourselves to be activists, uh, holding our governments accountable for the rest of our lives. But we do have to make sure that the, what we have learned over the course of the last year affects how we vote in the future, how we communicate to our elected officials about what it is we’re trying to get them to do.
And I think we have to figure out how to communicate with our governments that from now on policies have to have people at the center of them. Um, for too long, climate and environmental policy has been drafted without thinking about how to ensure that those policies have benefits for people where they live. Often, those benefits happen anyway right? Climate policies mean cleaner air, more livable communities, warmer homes. But we need to design policies so that those [00:24:00] outcomes are intentional rather than incidental. And I think that’s a big lesson we can take away from the, for the last few years, is that putting people at the center of those policies really helps to bring them into the conversation and helps them feel encouraged that we can hold our governments accountable in the future.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Catherine, thank you so much for this. It’s been great, it’s one of the more optimistic conversations we’ve had. Really appreciate it.
Catherine Abreu: Thanks again for having me.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Catherine Abreu of Climate Action Network Canada. That was The Big Story, for more from us, including lots of episodes on climate change, more of them positive recently, which is good news, head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN, even if it’s only to tell us that you’re sick of this crucially important topic. You can also email us, thebigstorypodcast, all one word, all lowercase, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. And as always we’re in your favourite podcast players, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify, and your voice assistance.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
Back to top of page