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Hindsight: 2020 Part 2 – climate policy, fossil fuel industry and land defense

This is part two of a series: Read part one and part three.

In 2020, while the focus of climate policy shifted significantly toward net zero emissions planning, governments continued to be guided by corporate interests and continued to criminalize land defenders working to stop unsustainable infrastructure being built on their lands.

Net zero emissions policies take centre stage

In the midst of the COVID-19 response and recovery, many governments and corporations made commitments to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. We should be wary, though: not all net-zero targets are made equal.

A very important piece of net zero planning and legislation is that there are a few ways that emissions are calculated: Scope 1 refers to those that are created on site because of an activity (e.g., emissions from trucks used to extract fossil fuels); scope 2 refers to those that are created in producing the energy needed to do an activity (e.g. emissions from electricity used to extract fossil fuels); and scope 3 refers to those that are produced later as a result of the activity (e.g., emissions from burning the fossil fuels produced). You may also be familiar with “upstream” and “downstream” emissions – upstream being those that are created, for example, in the process of extracting oil, and downstream being those that are produced later, for example when the oil that is extracted is burned.

It is critical when making net-zero plans that” scope 3″ or “downstream” emissions are calculated and accounted for. Science tells us that upwards of 80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves must be left unburned in order to have a chance at climate stability. Canada’s fossil fuel reserves are big enough to burn through half of the world’s global carbon budget if they are extracted. A climate plan that does not plan for the wind-down of fossil fuel extraction is a plan rooted in climate denial.

In 2020, many fossil fuel companies committed to net-zero emissions though, in many cases, their plans about how to get there were laughable. Check out Oil Change International’s report on corporate net-zero commitments and why we shouldn’t take them at face value.

The Government of Canada recently released its own Net-Zero Carbon Accountability Act, which in some ways is a promising step forward, but should be taken with several grains of salt: the legislation doesn’t include any climate targets between now and 2030, leaves the door open for oil companies to steer the implementation of this act and doesn’t include any penalties or consequences for missing targets. Read our full analysis of this bill.

It’s not just the federal government talking net zero – provinces and cities are moving that direction too. Vancouver, Halifax, Montreal and the Province of Quebec have introduced different plans and policies to reach net-zero emissions. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities put out its Build Back Better plan, and small towns in the Central Kootenay region have collectively committed to 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2050.

Indigenous land defenders consistently criminalized and put at risk to protect corporate profits

2020 started off hot: just weeks into January the Supreme Court of B.C. issued an injunction ordering Wet’suwet’en peoples to stop blocking TC Energy (formerly TransCanada) from sovereign Wet’suwet’en lands. The weeks that followed saw the intense criminalization of Wet’suwet’en land defenders, sparking a movement known as Shut Down Canada. Indigenous communities across Canada blocked railways and held other disruptive protests to force the federal and B.C. governments into negotiations with Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs. Read more about the Wet’suwet’en struggle for sovereignty.

In 2020 we learned that police foundations across Canada and the U.S. are funded by fossil fuel companies, adding to growing concerns about the use of militarized police to repress Indigenous land defenders, and to inflict violence on Black and other racialized people and communities.

As the pandemic swept across the country, Indigenous communities called for work camps with rotational workers to be closed to prevent COVID-19 from spreading into communities made vulnerable by centuries of colonization and structural poverty. These camps were not shut down and they were indeed the sites of many outbreaks such as at the Coastal GasLink camp, LNG Canada work site and a number of tar sands work sites.

The criminalization of Indigenous land defenders and the risks that Indigenous communities faced during the pandemic is born out of our governments’ consistent prioritization of private profit over Indigenous Peoples and rights. The profit of multinational fossil fuel corporations was prioritized over the rights of Indigenous communities and the health of workers.

New science warns we may already have blown the carbon budget – but it’s not game over

As 2020 came to a close, a team of climate scientists was wrapping up their latest study showing that the amount of greenhouse gas already emitted into the atmosphere to push the Earth past 2 degrees Celsius of warming. However, the research also shows that the timeline on this warming is not set in stone – if we can reduce global emissions very rapidly, the Earth might not warm beyond 2 degrees for hundreds or thousands of years.

The key message here is that we must act fast. This is what our movements have been saying for years, and, as time ticks on, it becomes truer and more urgent. It is incumbent on our movements to organize ourselves powerfully to push corporate interests out of our democratic spaces so we can collectively make decisions that put people and the planet before profits.

Corporate capture remains deeply rooted in our public institutions

As I mentioned in part one of this series, 2020 included both important and progressive responses to COVID-19 and corporate handouts. Read more about those bailouts and other fossil fuel corporate lobbying in the midst of the pandemic.

Corporate subsidies continue to be on the menu for government spending in 2021. The majority of “green infrastructure” funding promises are tied to the Canada Infrastructure Bank, which only grants money to Public Private Partnerships (P3s). These P3s are widely understood to be more expensive to build and operate than publicly owned infrastructure, tend to deliver lower-quality services to the public and are subject to less scrutiny and accountability than a publicly managed project. For example, P3 water utilities or roads tend to increase user costs and often deliver lower-quality services. Read more about P3s.

In 2021, our movements must be on the lookout for private subsidies and P3 agreements dressed up and presented as public investment.

Part three of this series will discuss where we go from here.