1 Nov 2016

Why are our environmental groups
supporting weak climate targets?

Canada is far behind many other countries when it comes to meeting its carbon reduction targets. We have an “inadequate” ranking on the international mechanism tracking carbon emitters, says Climate Action Tracker.  Many other countries/regions, such as Norway, the European Union, the United States and China, are well ahead of us.

Meanwhile, the federal government’s recently announced that all Canadian jurisdictions must adopt a carbon pricing scheme by 2018 with a minimum price of $10 per tonne. The price must rise to reach $50 per tonne by 2022. The goal of reducing emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 will not get Canada anywhere close to its promises to the United Nations.

The Canadian targets are “nothing short of a disaster for the climate,” says Green Party leader Elizabeth May.

Canadians probably believe that our major environmental groups are busy lobbying and pushing the federal and provincial governments to do much more. But no, this is not the case.

Strangely, while many individual groups carry out excellent and productive projects, the country’s environmental community is doing very little to pressure governments to do a better job.

No group criticizing the government

A survey of the top 20 or so environmental organizations shows – from what I could find – that not one group is conducting an ongoing, strategic campaign lobbying the federal government for not doing more.

Young people on Parliament Hill protesting pipeline construction, but when it comes to fighting climate change, environmental groups have decided not to campaign against the Liberal government. 

Some groups have made one-off statements criticizing the government, but these do not constitute a campaign.

Greenpeace’s Keith Stewart did say that “thirty per cent by 2030 isn’t good enough. We have to go farther.”  But it does not seem that the organization will be lobbying governments re carbon levels.

The David Suzuki Foundation applauded the Trudeau government for creating a national climate action plan.  The Foundation gives no indications it will urge the government to do better.

Environmental Defence has said the government’s action was a step forward, but added that there are real issues.  Organization National Program Manager Dale Marshall wrote: “The long delay before the carbon price reaches levels that can take a real bite out of Canada’s emissions puts Canada’s international commitments—no matter how weak—in jeopardy.”

CAN fails to show leadership

The Climate Action Network (CAN) is made up of a wide collection of about 100 environmental and public interest groups. CAN is the network that would be expected to conduct a serious campaign. However, it chose to endorse the mediocre goals set by the government.

“…. Prime Minster Trudeau showed conviction when it comes to putting a price on carbon across Canada,” said Catherine Abreu, CAN Executive Director.

CAN believes it can accomplish more working within the system as opposed to criticizing the government from the outside. Network leaders make much of the fact that CAN was one of the groups the government consulted during the process of setting the carbon reduction targets. However, with the government coming in with the lowest possible target, CAN apparently didn’t have much influence during the process.

If anything, the government co-opted CAN to accept its positions.

CAN leaders believe they have an edge in influencing the federal government because three former environmental leaders hold key positions in the government.

  • Gerald Butts, formerly president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, is Senior Political Advisor to Prime Minister Trudeau. But earlier he held key positions with the Ontario Liberals.  Earlier he had worked with the Ontario Liberals.
  • Marlo Raynolds, formerly with BluEarth Renewables and the Pembina Institute, is Chief of Staff for Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna. He was a losing Liberal candidate in the last federal election.
  • John Brodhead is Chief of Staff with Infrastructure and Communities Minister Amarjeet Sohi. Formerly he was Executive Director at Evergreen CityWorks, a national environmental charity that focuses on green urban planning and infrastructure policy. He too had earlier worked for the Ontario Liberals. 

It’s questionable whether the three long-time Liberals will influence climate change policy in any meaningful way. The three men are there to serve the interests of the government and, having worked in Liberal politics before, they know it. Their main job is to keep things moving smoothly for the government and helping the government get re-elected.

Naturally, from the point of view of a government leader, Justin Trudeau is more interested in creating his vision of a healthy economy instead of carrying out a full attack on climate change.

Climate groups must keep their focus

However, environmental groups should not be more concerned about the government’s economic issues than climate policy. If groups staged a massive campaign aimed at solving climate problems, perhaps the government could be convinced to move some of the billions it plans to spend on infrastructure over to climate change.

The government may be pleased that it’s not being criticized by the environmental community. However, if the government wants to make progress on the climate change file they need to be lobbied strongly by climate groups to help keep the powerful fossil fuel industry at bay.

Elizabeth May recently told a small group of environmental lobbyists that she is disappointed by the lack of aggressive action from the community on the targets that have been set.

In terms of what groups should be lobbying for, May set out a number of suggestions, including ending federal fossil fuel subsidies, creating a robust climate adaptation strategy coordinated by a dedicated federal agency, and the provision of more green venture capital funds to take great and proven ideas and move them to commercialization.

Of course it’s not too late for the environmental community to change its ways. It needs to undergo a tremendous amount of self-evaluation. Concerning climate change, it lacks focus and organization. Groups need to end their isolation and begin cooperating with each other. The total income of the community is in the range of $225-million annually.

Imagine what could be accomplished if 10 per cent of this amount were used to create a massive carbon reduction campaigning program.

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Thanks Nick


  1. From Nick: Dale Marshall of Environmental Defence complained I could have found a better statement for my article than the one I used. Here's a stronger article from Dale -- however it does not qualify as lobbying the government.

    "Prime Minister Trudeau adopting former federal government’s weak carbon reduction targets."

    Sept 22 2016

    By Dale Marshall
    National Program Manager Categories: Climate Change, Environmental Defence.

    The past week was not good news for Canadians who want to see our country show climate leadership. Though Canada championed the Paris Agreement on climate change less than a year ago, the federal government floated two trial balloons in the past week that seed doubt that the government remains committed to the Paris Agreement’s goals. In fact, the government seems to be moving backwards rather than forwards in its climate ambitions. (Want Canada to do better? Take action here.)

    The government’s announcement that Canada will stick with the weakest targets in the G7 is essentially a broken promise.

    First, let’s remember that the Liberal 2015 election platform calls the former federal government’s 2030 targets “inadequate.” It’s probably not a coincidence that exactly the same word was used by four European think tanks to describe Canada’s weak target as compared to Canada’s fair share of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. In March this year, after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and premiers signed the Vancouver Declaration on climate change, Environment and Climate Change Minister McKenna said, in an interview with the CBC, “We will have a [new emissions] target at the end of the six-month process…and I want this to be an ambitious target.”

    It seems clear that the government is trying to back away from the promise of a stronger target.

    A more logical approach would be to set an ambitious temperature limit, as Canada did in the Paris Agreement, then adopt national targets based on that international commitment, and then work hard to deliver on both promises. The point is that the government can set science-based targets (also something that was promised) and take action to meet those targets. And that’s what Canadians want to see happen.

    If the federal government sticks with a weak target, the risk is it will have little motivation to make the right decision on a plan to reduce emissions. Two project proposals sit on the cabinet table awaiting a decision before the end of the year: the Kinder Morgan pipeline and the Petronas liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal. Both will significantly increase Canada’s carbon emissions and make attaining even a weak target much more difficult unless they are accompanied by Herculean emission reductions elsewhere to make up for the huge carbon pollution increases these projects enable.

    Setting a stronger target that is aligned with Paris commitments would force the government to more seriously consider all the carbon emissions created by those two projects. Keeping a weak target allows Prime Minister Trudeau and his ministers to partially or completely neglect those increased emissions, which would contradict the goals that Canada signed onto. Keeping the weak target also allows the government to craft an unambitious climate plan.

    A better option exists. The government can raise ambition and inspire Canadian provinces, businesses, and individuals to contribute to strong climate action. I’ve spoken to officials in government and they totally understand what it takes: speed up the phase out of coal plants, eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, put a price on carbon emissions, foster the continuing clean energy revolution, electrify and green our buildings and vehicles, and regulate the reduction of methane emissions. It’s time to get on with it.

    Let’s tell Prime Minister Trudeau and Minister McKenna to show climate leadership by setting an ambitious carbon reduction target AND developing a climate framework that will achieve it.

  2. Incredibly naive for anyone to have thought that the Liberal Party, the party of Bay Street, really intended to be concerned about the environment. The continued concentration of wealth and power into fewer and fewer corporate hands is the only goal in which the real leaders of this party are interested.

    1. I think some Liberals do care about our future, but probably hardly dare understand the need for control of our monetary system. We need to share information about COMER's efforts to protect our right to use the Bank of Canada for the common good: http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/rocco-galati-challenges-bank-of-canada-to-offer-interest-free-loans-1.3065650 & http://www.comer.org/ (by Jan Slakov)


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  3. Thank you for addressing this "elephant in the room" and good to see Dale Marshall's comments too. There is a small but inspiring campaign for real climate action via http://climatefast.ca/ . There is also good organizing going on within the context of the Leap manifesto. We need to get more political party support for the Leap manifesto vision/policies. And yes -> Can we get some of the resources from the large ENGOs directed towards the much stronger actions that we need? See the 6 suggestions from Climate Fast: http://www.climatefast.ca/six-points-climate-action .

    1. This was posted by me, Jan Slakov

  4. Ron, I don't disagree that there ate those who fit your description, but Bay Street does not elect governments. The implication of your piece is that "... nothing can be done..." which is playing right into the hands of those you decry. It would be incredibly naive to think that once the election was over, everything would come up roses. That is not the way things work. But you can't effect change by throwing up your hands and claiming the game is rigged.

  5. Just because Harper is no longer in power doesn't mean his 'legacy' doesn't endure ... especially with the 'Pepsi' brand back in office (if you buy into the idea that Coke = Cons).

    The CRA will still be looking at groups that receive charitable donations to keep them operational. As much as this negatively impacts environmental groups from lobbying government, it also keeps other groups from doing the same thing (e.g., fundamentalist/ProLife groups).

  6. Thanks Nick and Ron. The first target is to stop new fossil fuel infrastructure. Stop making the world worse.

  7. After reading "Dark Money" by Jane Mayer, I don't trust efforts by any "foundation" or "institute" or "trust"

  8. The problem is co-option at which the Liberals tend to be skilled and successful. All progressive moments are subjected to this process and we have yet to find a working counter strategy. Perhaps distinguishing possible decent governmental response from the gestures and nearly meaningless "incremental" changes on offer would be a place to start.

    1. This is quite true of all quasi-government organizations and any that receive direct government assistance. The biggest contribution to excessive politesse on the part of most environmental groups has been the CRA's crackdown on the use of funds for "political" purposes by those with charitable status.