Canadian climate policy took some hits this year but finished strong

This piece was originally published in the Toronto Star.

In the autumn of 2023, climate policy in Canada was feeling shaky: the vibes, as the kids say, were off.

The draft Clean Electricity Regulations, released in August, were facing ill-founded criticisms from the Prairies; the consumer carbon price was proving a tough sell at a time when a box of cereal was costing $8. (Even though we all know that the carbon price doesn’t raise the price of groceries and most households, especially low-income ones, get back more in rebates than they pay — right?) The federal decision to remove the carbon price from heating oil in the Maritimes turned out to be like throwing water on a grease fire: it did the opposite of putting the fire out, and left a big mess behind.

My natural optimism took a bit of a beating this fall. If you had asked me in October how I felt about climate policy in Canada, I would have answered you truthfully: “not great.”

But I had underestimated 2023. As it turned out, the year finished strong, giving Canada’s clean energy transition a welcome boost of momentum.

December alone saw a series of consequential announcements that lay the groundwork for deep emissions reductions. The draft regulations to reduce methane emissions, announced in early December, aim to reduce the release of this potent planet-warming pollutant from the upstream oil and gas sector by 75 per cent below 2012 levels by 2030: this is a big deal. Reducing methane is widely considered one of the cheapest and most effective ways to cut fossil fuel pollution, and because methane only sticks around for about 12 years in the atmosphere, getting a handle on methane can help with the severity of climate effects in the short term.

The methane regulations were an important stepping stone to what came immediately after: namely the regulatory framework for the oil and gas sector emissions cap, which outlined an approach to the sector that is both reasonable and necessary. Oil and gas production is the single biggest and stubbornly still growing source of heat-trapping pollution in the country, and the sector’s backsliding is wiping out climate progress in other parts of the economy.

And to round out December’s federal policy hat trick, the Zero-Emissions Vehicle regulations were released, which will clean up Canada’s air and make it easier for Canadians, most of whom want their next vehicle to be electric, to buy one. EVs are easier on the planet, and on the wallet: analysis by Clean Energy Canada of popular Canadian EV models showed that Canadians who drive electric vehicles are saving a bundle—often $10,000 or more in ownership costs—compared to those driving equivalent gas-powered vehicles. More than a dozen countries have similar policies to what Canada introduced, requiring new vehicle sales to be 100 per cent electric by 2035 or sooner.

In addition to these December announcements, several other major policy pieces moved forward in 2023, either being put into law or edging closer to implementation: the Clean Fuel Regulations, updated carbon pricing, and draft Clean Electricity Regulations. The National Adaptation Strategy was finalized in June of this year—an essential building block to protect Canadians from the effects of climate change. That never felt more essential than the month it was finalized, after weeks of wildfire smoke polluting the air in communities across the country, and devastating floods in Nova Scotia.

Of course, it’s one thing to develop and announce policy: the real question is, will it do the job to reduce emissions? I don’t have a crystal ball, but I do have some independent analysis of the 2023 Emissions Reduction Plan progress report released this month, which shows that current policies are working, and that Canada is on track to achieve between 85 and 90 per cent of its 2030 emissions target.

In my line of work, it’s a bit of a cliché that every policy announcement is greeted by hearty applause, followed by the pronouncement that “more work is needed!” But it’s also the truth: more work is needed, and quickly, too. The rush of announcements this December provided a welcome boost of momentum, but now the whole country, including every provincial government, needs to keep things rolling, moving these policies from proposals and drafts to legislation, as quickly as we can, without any backsliding or delay.