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Canada needs a just transition from fossil fuels

The Liberals’ plan to fight fire with fire won’t turn down the climate heat

If the federal Liberal government was a firefighter, its fire hose would be filled with gasoline instead of water.

Prime Minister Trudeau has been promising a Just Transition Act for three years, but instead he keeps delivering fossil fuel subsidies and pipelines.

In the wake of the latest “sobering” report from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the government could have finally kickstarted the just transition legislation process in last week’s federal budget. Instead, it approved Bay du Nord, yet another climate-killing fossil fuel project.

We’ve seen this pattern before. The day after Parliament declared a climate emergency in 2019, Trudeau bought a pipeline. This government is incredibly skilled at accurately acknowledging the problem, showing up to address it, and then doing the opposite of what it says and what is needed.

So what is to be done with a government that acknowledges the science and scale of the crisis and then keeps throwing fuel on the fire anyway?

There are three key recent developments that inform the way forward for our movement: the recent federal budget, the government’s new Emissions Reduction Plan, and the Liberal-NDP agreement.

Federal budget fans the flames of the climate crisis

The 2022 federal budget includes $2.6 billion in tax credits for Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS) over five years starting in 2022, reaching up to $8.6 billion in total by 2030. This is the equivalent of the government aiming its gas-filled fire hose at the heart of the fire, claiming it’s spraying water while arsonists do the “fire-fighting.” Carbon capture systems actually emit more than they capture, which means that they aren’t a solution – they’re just another subsidy with a coat of green paint that helps Big Oil pump even more emissions into the atmosphere.

The budget is also filled with contradictions like committing to “renew and expand the Oceans Protection Plank,” while approving the climate-killing Bay du Nord offshore oil megaproject the same week.

The budget also doubled down on privatizing the transition to a low carbon future, announcing “a broadened role for the CIB [Canada Infrastructure Bank] to invest in private sector-led infrastructure projects,” with an increased focus for the CIB on false solutions like CCUS and Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).

In addition to the CIB’s expanded role in driving privatization and false solutions, the budget also launches the Canadian Innovation and Investment Agency (to subsidize corporate research and development) and the Canada Growth Fund (to “attract substantial private sector investment” in addressing climate goals and “restructure” supply chains).

But pumping government money into corporate research and development for life-saving technology does not necessarily guarantee outcomes that correspond to the public interest. As a case in point, our governments poured billions of public dollars into pharmaceutical companies developing COVID-19 vaccines, only for these monopolies to then deny vaccine access to millions of people worldwide.

The budget also threw public transit under the bus, once again.

New Emissions Reductions Plan

The federal government’s new Emissions Reductions Plan (ERP), released at the end of March, is a classic case of both under-promising and not delivering.

This plan elaborates on the federal government’s plan for A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy (HEHE), launched last year. The lacklustre goal in HEHE of reducing emissions by 40-45 per cent is an unfunny joke that the government sticks to in this “new” ERP.

The ERP even talks about eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and supporting CCUS, which is both a subsidy and greenwashing, on the same page.

For some key sectors, the government has set reduction targets that are laughably unambitious. These include 37 per cent for buildings, 31 per cent for oil and gas, 11 per cent for transportation, and 1 percent for agriculture, below 2005 levels by 2030. All of this, despite the fact that Canada’s fair share of overall emissions reductions needs to be at least 60 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

While these targets don’t go far enough, it’s important to note that the plan addresses key sectors of the economy outside oil and gas, like agriculture, buildings, and transportation, which need to be part of the solution to the crisis.

That said, the approach in each of these areas is entrenched in neoliberal thinking. There’s too much focus on corporate agriculture, not enough on decommodifying our food system. Too much focus on homeowners, not enough on renters. Too much focus on electric cars and not enough on public transit.

The plan’s focus on homeowners instead of renters is a continuation of the federal government’s abandonment of working-class people. The centerpiece remains, as it has for years, providing “the certainty and market signals needed by the private sector to make investment decisions” about buildings, while renters (who account for 30 per cent of households in Canada) continue to be left to fend for themselves.

The Liberal-NDP agreement and a just transition

On March 22, the Liberal party and the NDP announced an agreement to cooperate on a number of parliamentary objectives. One of these is a just transition.

The agreement commits the federal government to “significant emissions reductions by 2030.” What does “significant” mean? The new Emissions Reduction Plan only commits to 40 per cent, which falls far short of what climate science calls for.

It’s noteworthy that the agreement prioritizes home energy efficiency programs,” which includes “investments to support multiple streams including low-income and multi-unit residential apartments.” This appears to be a shift towards an increased focus on renters. What this will actually look like remains to be seen, but it underscores the need to build alliances between climate justice groups, tenants’ rights groups, and unhoused encampment support networks to unite to win decarbonized, public, affordable housing for all.

There are three more budgets that will take place during the life of this Liberal-NDP agreement. But it remains unclear what happens when budgetary measures run counter to the terms of the agreement.

For instance, the agreement pledges to develop “a plan to phase-out public financing of the fossil fuel sector, including from Crown corporations, including early moves in 2022.” But there is a major contradiction at play here. The NDP has agreed to prop up federal budgets in exchange for phasing out fossil fuel subsidies – the very same subsidies that the budget is now perpetuating.

What’s more, even though the agreement includes commitments on climate action and reconciliation, it is conspicuously silent on fossil fuel projects that have been rejected by Indigenous peoples, such as the Trans Mountain and Coastal GasLink pipelines.

It remains to be seen how the contradictions in this agreement will play out. That said, the agreement creates new opportunities for our movements to win the kind of bold, transformative climate justice we need.

Our movements have been collectively organizing for months to flood parliament with petitions for a just transition. And in March of this year, we came together with our friends at 350 Canada to organize a National Day of Action – a day that saw 50 communities coming together to share bold and inspiring worker and community-led visions of what a just transition could look like. Many other people, communities, and organizations are also organizing ongoing efforts to win a just transition.

While there’s still much further to go, we’d be far worse off without the tireless organizing that’s been taking place from coast to coast. What comes from this agreement depends, at least in part, on what our movements do now.