Biden’s climate change plan could ‘absolutely’ pressure Canada: experts

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with then-U.S. vice-president Joe Biden on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, Dec. 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Patrick Doyle

U.S. President Joe Biden has made tackling climate change a prominent part of his governing agenda, vowing to cut the country’s carbon emissions by 50 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and has identified it as one of his administration’s top priorities.

Biden’s plan marks America’s return to the climate change fight, a battle Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has committed to tackling alongside the Democrat.

Will Biden’s ambitious climate plan put pressure on the Trudeau government? Will the two leaders clash on any policies?

Here’s what experts say.

Donald Wright, a political science professor at the University of New Brunswick who studies the politics of climate change, said Biden’s climate plan will “absolutely” put pressure on Canada and other countries to up their own ambitions.

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“The United States lost a lot of credibility during the Trump years,” he said. “But Biden is slowly trying to regain leadership on the climate file and use America’s prestige and authority around the world to push other countries.”

Wright said we’re already seeing this happen, pointing to Trudeau’s announcement in April to increase Canada’s emissions reduction target to between 40 and 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

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In a previous interview with Global News, Kathryn Harrison, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia echoed Wright’s comments, saying when the U.S. “does get ambitious” it pressures all of its trading partners to “get moving as well.”

“They’re worried that they’ll be undercut by us and by other countries if they move aggressively forward and their trading partners don’t,” she said.

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However, Debora VanNijnatten, a professor of political science at Wilfred Laurier University, said she wouldn’t call it “pressure,” saying instead that Biden’s commitment to tackling climate change will “liberate the Trudeau government to do what it has been trying to do.”

“Think about the obstacles that the federal government has faced over the past few years as it tried to do climate policy,” she said. “A lot of political constraints, opposition from the provinces, especially as they flipped conservative in 2018 (and) 2019, you know, opposition to the carbon tax, and major oil and gas companies, as well as the major manufacturers saying: ‘You know, you can’t do this now. It puts us at a competitive disadvantage to the U.S.”

She said all of those arguments have now “gone poof” in a “spectacular fashion.”

“There is no argument left for not moving,” she said.


Ultimately, though, Wright said Biden and Trudeau’s climate plans are “very similar.”

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He pointed to the leaders’ plans to reduce methane emissions from pipelines and refineries.

In fact, after sharing their first bilateral meeting in February, Biden and Trudeau released a document stating that they had both “reaffirmed the shared commitment to reducing oil and gas methane emissions to protect public health and the environment, as guided by the best science.”

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Wright said the leaders’ plans are similar in their approach to the electricity sector as well.

“The Trudeau government’s promise to phase out coal-fired generating stations,” he said. “And Biden is talking about a clean electricity standard, which is incredibly ambitious.”

Last month, the Biden administration doubled down on a campaign promise to shift the U.S. to a carbon-free energy sector by 2035 in its US$2.2-trillion infrastructure plan.

Meanwhile, the Trudeau government has set a goal for Canada to achieve 90 per cent non-emitting electricity by 2030 — a promise the prime minister reaffirmed after his meeting with Biden.

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Wright said both leaders are also “putting their eggs” in the development of green technology.

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In fact, during an interview with the BBC on Sunday, U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said 50 per cent of the carbon reductions the U.S. needed will come from green technologies that have not yet been invented.

VanNijnatten, too, said she expects the two governments will work collaboratively on a number of areas, adding that much of this work was already underway during the Obama administration.

“So some of those initiatives can just hit the ground running because they just need to be restarted,” she said.

VanNijnatten said methane emissions reductions are “absolutely a big one,” but added that the two countries will likely also work co-operatively to reduce other pollutants and on things like carbon capture and storage.

She said the U.S. will also “probably need Canadian help in terms of greening their grid as well.”

“We’ve got lots of green energy and certainly Quebec has lined itself up panting to be a green energy exporter — an even bigger one to the U.S.,” she said. “So that stuff is already going on.”

Another area where the countries will likely collaborate, VanNijnatten said, is electrification.

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“We have an integrated automobile manufacturing industry in North America,” she explained. “And there’s going to be some co-operation in terms of manufacturing electric vehicles.”

VanNijnatten said the two governments can co-operate on agricultural emissions reductions.

“This is one difference between the Obama administration and the Biden administration,” she said. “The Biden administration is really moving on agriculture and saying, ‘It’s got to change and we need to turn it into something that helps our emissions profile instead of makes it worse.'”

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In February, Biden and Trudeau announced that a “High Level Climate Ministerial” would be launched to “coordinate cooperation between the United States and Canada” to “increase ambition aligned to the Paris Agreement and net-zero objectives.”

Kerry and Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson shared a “working meeting” in late February.

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Wilkinson said the pair discussed how the countries can “collaborate to accelerate progress on climate change” and to “enhance the level of ambition on both sides of the border.”

Climate clashes and pipeline problems

VanNijnatten said while Canada and the U.S. are aligned on “pretty much everything,” on the climate file, the countries do have a “difference in emphasis.”

“The U.S. has really got to target coal — that is the biggest aspect of their emissions profile,” she said. “It’s not for us. (For Canada) it’s, of course, the oil and gas industry, but also transportation.”

However, where it could get “ugly,” VanNijnatten said, is over pipelines.

The two leaders have already disagreed over Biden’s decision to revoke the presidential permit for the Keystone Pipeline XL expansion project.

Now, advocates worry Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline could face a similar fate as Michigan — through which the pipeline runs — has ordered Enbridge to close the line.

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Speaking at a press conference Tuesday evening after attending free trade talks on CUSMA, Canada’s Trade Minister Mary Ng said she raised the issue with U.S. trade representative Katherine Tai.

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“Canadian energy infrastructure and the shutdown of Line 5 is going to have profound consequences here in Canada but also in the U.S.,” she said. “So I have certainly raised it with my U.S. counterparts and the importance of keeping Line 5 open.”

However, so far, the Biden administration has been mum on Line 5.

VanNijnatten said this is a “big ouch” for Canada, adding that it sends an “incredible signal” to the country that it needs to be “thinking differently” about the oil and gas sector.

She said Canada has been “underestimating” the fact that the U.S. is natural gas self-sufficient “because of all the fracking that has happened.”

“You’re going to have lessened demand from the U.S., a real stranglehold on pipeline capacity,” she said.

“That really sends a signal to Canadians that, ‘Whoa, OK, we better move faster on this stuff.’

“That, for sure is Canada’s Achilles heel — the transition plan for the oil and gas industry, both economically, politically and also socially.”

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