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What is a climate emergency? Liberals, NDP table duelling motions on climate change

WATCH: Liberals accuse Conservatives of misleading Canadians on climate plan – May 10, 2019

Canadian politicians are expected to debate Thursday whether or not to declare a national climate emergency.

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Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is tabling a motion Thursday that would state that climate change is a “real and urgent crisis” and impacts Canadians across the country.

READ MORE: How climate change could make your food less safe to eat

The emergency declaration also says Canada should “commit to meeting its national emissions target under the Paris Agreement and to making deeper reductions in line with the agreement’s objective of holding global warming below 2 degrees Celsius and pursuing efforts to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.”

The declaration comes one day after the NDP tabled a similar motion, which called for government to “(increase) the ambition” of greenhouse gas reduction targets. That motion also asked for Canada to commit to abandoning the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, which the Liberals purchased in 2018.

WATCH: NDP ask Liberals to join them and declare a climate emergency

But what does declaring a climate emergency actually do?

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, who spoke on background about the topic, said the motion is meant to be a statement from Parliament saying this is the top priority for the government.

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There are no policy changes that come from the motion.

While it doesn’t change the day-to-day activities of the average Canadian, the declaration is more of a signal to the rest of the world, Andrea Olive, environmental policy expert and associate professor at the University of Toronto, told Global News.

READ MORE: Liberals push climate change motion in attempt to force Conservatives to show policy hand

“It’s signalling to the United States and signalling to other countries that we think climate change is an emergency and we have policies — maybe aspirational — but we have policies that we’re going to pursue,” Olive said.

Over the past month, the U.K. and Ireland also declared climate emergencies in their countries. That follows a trend of cities and municipalities doing the same.

While it’s too soon to know if declaring the emergency has helped shape policy or reduce emissions, there are other benefits — and pitfalls — to the action.

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The declaration is expected to bring increased awareness to the fight against climate change.

Dale Marshall, national climate program manager of climate advocacy organization Environmental Defence, called the motion an important first step in enacting meaningful policy.

“You don’t reduce emissions by just voting for a motion in the House of Commons. But it’s an important step,” he said.

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Olive also said it’s a chance for the political parties to clarify their stances on climate change as an election looms on the horizon.

READ MORE: NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh unveils part of climate plan in motion


Olive is worried that overuse of the word “emergency” could lead to apathy on climate change.

“If we keep having these reports every six months, we keep having politicians declare a state of emergency and nothing changes, then that’s a problem,” Olive said.

“If the Liberals and NDP this week want to say that this is an emergency then we need to see real action by these political parties on these issues.”

Politics of the motions

The Liberals are unlikely to support the NDP motion because of the pipeline component, experts say.

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Olive also warned that because it’s “election season,” the Liberals and the NDP are using the declaration to their advantage.

“I think that this is an opportunity because Kenney just won in Alberta and because there’s then, I guess, a sweep of Conservatives winning across the country,” she said.

“The Liberals are getting worried, and this gives them a chance to speak about climate change and the importance of it.”


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