‘They need to develop a bit of a backbone’: Can Justin Trudeau resist knee jerk responses & wishy-washy climate policy?
Feature Image Adam Scotti/Prime Minister’s Office

‘They need to develop a bit of a backbone’: Can Justin Trudeau resist knee jerk responses & wishy-washy climate policy?

As spring unfolds new beginnings emerge. On the country’s political landscape many Canadians are starting to think about the future.

A new poll released last weekend by Abacus Data, which surveyed 3,550 Canadians with an emphasis on Ontario and Alberta, found that support for Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government continues to decline, while support for the Conservatives is rising.

If an election was held now, 41 percent of committed voters would choose Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives with the Liberals at 23 percent. The NDP and Greens sit at 19 percent and four percent respectively and, in Quebec, the Bloc Quebecois are at 33 percent.

Poilievre has been hammering away on high inflation, the ongoing housing crisis and a range of other factors making life increasingly unaffordable for an increasing number of Canadians. Many are taking out their frustration on Trudeau.

And climate policy has become a wedge issue.

The Prime Minister is facing a dilemma: Should he hold strong on environmental policies that helped get him elected since 2015 and have provided a clear alternative to the Conservatives; or should he bend as the fiery Poilievre uses misleading rhetoric and unproven figures to demonize climate action, particularly the carbon tax backed by Trudeau? 

Canada has failed to meet a single climate target it has set since 1990.

(Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer)


Critics are asking if the Prime Minister will choose the short game, or the long one. Will he become desperate enough to hang onto power at all costs? (He himself has suggested this is not the case, with comments hinting at fatigue following almost a decade holding the wheel that steers this country, at significant personal costs.) Or will he remain committed to decision making that will have consequences for generations to come?

These are not easy decisions. But if he does decide to lead his party into the next federal election, a key challenge is the already spotty record on climate action since Trudeau was given the power to govern.

In November, Canada’s Environment Commissioner Jerry DeMarco released five scathing audits which determined the nation is not on track to meet its interim target of a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2030. He also said the federal climate plan was disconcerting, with few targets linked to implementation deadlines which makes measuring progress difficult.

“Without expected emission reductions transparently available in the plan, it is not possible to know which of the mitigation measures to reduce emissions were key,” DeMarco wrote in his findings. “Without milestones and deadlines, it is not possible to know whether all measures had been implemented on time. It is important that this information be publicly available in an accessible format so that Canadians and parliamentarians can hold the government to account for its commitments.”

The audits were released as the planet experienced its warmest summer on record, and Toronto just came through the warmest winter in its history, by a longshot.

While the Earth’s planetary crisis represents the biggest long term threat to our way of life, millions of Canadians are being crippled by an affordability crisis that feels more immediate. Trudeau is stuck in the middle. 

Environmental organizations and intergovernmental bodies are increasingly demanding that governments around the world hold the biggest polluters accountable. 

According to the federal government, in 2021 the oil and gas sector accounted for 28 percent of the nation’s total emissions — or 180 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent. Despite repeated calls to transition to a low carbon economy, emissions from the sector rose three percent compared to 2020.

Despite near-sighted actions by provinces, particularly Alberta, this was on Trudeau’s watch.

“Arrogant”, “dishonest”, “corrupt”, “charismatic” and “weak”. Those are the five most popular words used to describe the once popular Prime Minister, according to a release from Polling Canada in 2022. 

A strong stance on the carbon tax might at least shore up support in his base, as climate voters begin to question Liberal policies that have made concessions to polluters, in the name of affordability for all Canadians (even though the vast majority of residents see a net benefit from carbon taxation, through charges to polluters that create revenue handed back to consumers through federal carbon rebates).

In the fall during COP28, Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault and Minister of Natural Resources Johnathon Wilkinson announced a framework to introduce a cap on oil and gas emissions nationally.

“We owe it to Canadians and to the rest of the world to address these emissions, as we owe it to our workers and businesses to ensure that Canada's well earned reputation for energy innovation remains our strong suit for the 21st century,” Minster Guilbeault said during his opening remarks. 


Oil production is the biggest obstacle to Canada’s emissions reduction targets.

(Graphic from Environmental Defence)


But the long awaited framework disappointed many environmental organizations who identified loopholes in the system, demanded by some of the biggest polluters, which allow them to continue producing emissions without the originally planned financial consequences. Before an official policy will be set in stone, the review process for the final emissions policy could take up to two years, allowing polluters to continue causing harm that cannot be undone at this critical point.  

Provinces with conservative leaders, guided by Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, are demanding more curbing of pollution policies, as Pierre Poilievre continues to claim the carbon tax is hurting all Canadians (a claim flatly refuted by the Parliamentary Budget Office, which he has previously relied on for his facts).

“I think the core message is just how much the landscape has shifted under the Liberals' feet, relative to where we were in 2016,” Mark Winfield, a professor in the faculty of environment and urban change at York University who has done extensive writing on environmental policy, told The Pointer. “Because at that stage, we had a federal provincial consensus. And part of that meant that there was a sharing of the political costs and political risks between the provinces and the federal government.”

In 2015/2016, Alberta and Ontario, as well as BC and Quebec — with all four provinces making up 80 percent of Canada’s population — had their own carbon tax schemes in place. 

That all changed in 2018, first with the election of Ford in Ontario, followed by former premier Jason Kenney in Alberta. Almost instantly, some of Canada’s most powerful and provinces went from having sound environmental policy, with a plan to curb emissions, to strategies largely informed by the polluters themselves. 

“[The federal government is] bearing all political cost. They're doing all the heavy lifting. And they're not getting any payoff from the provinces,” Winfield said.

When Ford scrapped the former Cap and Trade Act in 2018 subsequently eliminating any sort of price on carbon in Ontario, and Kenney followed suit in 2019, the federal government was poised to make good on its promise to implement a taxation system in these provinces.

While the ongoing implementation of the federal carbon tax is a direct consequence of these province’s failures to implement their own carbon pricing scheme, the conservative premiers have continued to clap back, with Ford and Smith demanding the federal tax be cancelled or paused while claiming it could see the Liberals “annihilated” in the next election. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe went as far as refusing to collect the tax as of January 1.


Premier Doug Ford has criticized the federal government of “jurisdictional creep” in its policies to protect the environment.

(The Pointer files)


Even on critical matters such as housing, Ford has called out Trudeau for overstepping his jurisdiction, for example, by using federal tax dollars to help municipalities that oversee the construction of environmentally responsible dense housing, which would also address the dire lack of units across the country. 

In the face of these public attacks, the Liberals have made concessions. 

In the fall of 2023, the federal government released draft Clean Electricity Regulations (CER) to guide the nation to a net zero electricity grid by 2035, a laudable goal according to many environmental organizations. But those organizations have also identified loopholes in the regulations that would allow for fossil gas production past 2035 and allow provinces like Ontario and Alberta to continue to burn excess fossil fuels. While the government received 214 comments on the Online Regulatory Consulting System and over 18,000 submissions — many of which were in favour of stricter standards — the second draft released earlier this year consisted of watered down legislation with heavy influence from the fossil fuel industry to soften policies.

“Even the version of this policy that we saw in the summer was not strong enough to get Canada to zero emissions by 2035, but there will be millions of tonnes of carbon in the year 2035 and even into the 2040 decade with this policy,” Stephen Thomas, clean energy manager at the David Suzuki Foundation, previously told The Pointer. “The federal government says that they're still committed to meeting this target. But this policy won't get us there. And we don't see any other policy that they're developing in Canada that will fill in that gap.”

The Liberals were lauded by many homeowners when home heating oil was exempted from the carbon tax, while critics saw the move as a slippery slope toward more and more concessions that could leave climate action in tatters.

One of these troubling concessions by the Liberals, in what appeared to be an olive branch to the Ontario PCs, was their joint consent motion with Ford which, if agreed to by the courts, would remove the designation of an impact assessment from his prized Highway 413 project that his biggest donors in the development industry desperately need to dramatically increase the value of their already assembled land.


The developer-driven Highway 413 will have a number of environmental impacts and polling has shown the vast majority of Ontarians do not want it.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)


The decision sent shockwaves through environmental organizations. The highway project was originally designated in 2021 for assessment to ensure it does not violate the Species At Risk Act, the Fisheries Act, and various pieces of Indigenous consultation legislation. But before the assessment could even begin, the federal government seems to have backed off from its accountability efforts, allowing Ford and the powerful developers who land-banked properties along the approved highway corridor to get what they want.

“Do not concede on things like ill-advised highway projects that had already been determined to be economically disruptive,” Winfield said. While he recognizes the federal government’s desire to get in the “good books” with the premiers, which could be an effort to work alongside them for another term of office, the current relationship, he said, seems like all give and no take.

“They (Trudeau and his team) have to develop a bit more of a backbone, they've got to stop letting the premiers use them as a doormat on this and say, ‘look, we have a serious problem here. Nobody could have ignored last summer, we need to act, we need to maintain some coherency in terms of our strategy. We're prepared to put serious money on the table, we have put serious money on the table’,” he said. “But the price of access to that money is some constructive engagement around climate policy.”

Acquiescing to conservative premiers is not going to get Trudeau ahead. 

“You're not going to beat Poilievre trying to out-populist. You're gonna have to appeal to a different base,” Winfield said. 

Trying to appease conservative voters and premiers could prove to be doubly harmful: key policies will be trampled on; while the Liberal base is alienated. Research by the Pew Centre shows that in America conservative voters are unlikely to be swayed by democratic concessions, and data suggests the same in Canada, especially since there is an appetite among many for change in Ottawa after what will be a full decade in power for Trudeau by the time the election is held.

“That's the political risk with this kind of concession on the federal level, for the Liberals, as either you're driving voters… not to vote or to vote [for the Greens or NDP],” Winfield said.

“You gotta dance with the one that brought you,” Tim Gray, executive director at Environmental Defence, told The Pointer. “I think the federal government ran on a progressive and pro-environment, solve climate change, protect Canadians from environmental harms ticket in 2015, and again, in the subsequent two elections. So I think any kind of changing of direction really demotivates people from wanting to choose you again.”

Environmental policies no longer sit out on an island, isolated from other issues, they are now intertwined with everything from housing, affordability and economic development, to trade, innovation and international affairs. 

“What happens on the environmental policy front has moved into the centre of decision making for our world,” Gray said. “Twenty or 30 years ago politicians of all stripes really had a tendency to see environmental issues as a nice to have. After we sort out the important things like the economy or free trade we'll think about the environment a little bit. That was wrong there. And because of that attitude it has got us to the horrible places we are now in the world. But now, for anyone who's paying any attention, the decisions that get made on retooling our economy are ones that are based on clean energy, taking action to protect people from the scourge of plastics and chemicals, planning our cities properly, and our transportation networks properly, with a mind to them being grounded in environmental sustainability.

“These are not like marginal issues, these are the core upside of decision making, and the consequences of doing them wrong, become more and more clear all the time.”

A Leger poll released in 2023 concluded that 72 percent of Canadians are either “worried” or “very worried” about climate change.

“I think that they still have an opportunity to really arrive at the next chance they go to the polls and being able to tell with confidence and with clarity and certainty to the electorate that they've delivered on what they said they would do. And I think that's incredibly important for any government,” Gray said.

Winfield agrees. The best way forward for the Liberals is to hold hard to their promised commitments, which will also have the most positive impact on the environment. A recent report from the Canadian Climate Institute found that industrial carbon pricing is the number one climate policy that has the most impact on emissions reductions. Organizations around the world have concluded the same, that carbon pricing done the right way is the most effective strategy to curb global emissions. 

“From a climate policy perspective, they have to stay on that track. They need to be more aggressive in using the leverage that they've got in various ways, particularly all of this federal money,” Winfield said. “That's leverage. And that should be conditionalized a whole lot more on the provinces constructively engaging around climate change.”

Instead of prioritizing funding for unproven approaches promoted by the worst polluters, such as carbon capture and storage, which have negligible impacts on emissions themselves, the federal government needs to start demanding real action, he said. To alleviate some financial pressure, individual carbon pricing, which does not have as significant an impact on emissions reduction, could be capped while the government focuses on high-polluting industries.

“Hold on to the current consumer carbon price,” Winfield would advise Trudeau. “Be more assertive about the regulatory and other dimensions of your climate policy and maintain their integrity; and be more assertive about using the leverage [of] all that money they put on the table [for provinces] in the 2023 budget [for everything from housing and healthcare to economic development, transit and infrastructure]. And know that it comes with the price — and the price is cooperation on climate.”



Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @rachelnadia_

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