Building greener: Canada’s green recovery path

There is hope for a green future, but drastic changes need to be made by the government and large corporations

(Kristen Frier)

When Canada locked down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, carbon dioxide emissions went down by seven per cent around the world.

The pandemic has changed our lives drastically. People are travelling less and social distancing. With the pandemic altering our lifestyles so much, several government organizations and climate advocacy groups have addressed the need for a green recovery once the pandemic starts to subside.

Last year, 12 policymakers and business advocates came together to create the Task Force for a Resilient Recovery. The group lobbied the federal government and proposed new plans to help Canada meet its climate goals while working through an economic recovery.

In their most recent report, the task force laid out five policy moves for a green recovery. These include investing in climate and energy-efficient buildings, jumpstarting Canada’s production and adoption of zero-emission vehicles, going big on growing Canada’s clean energy sectors, preserving nature that protects and sustains us, and focusing on creating clean and competitive jobs across the Canadian economy.

“When it comes to a green recovery, we’re taking some positive steps on a very long journey … if you look at total government investment and stimulus post-pandemic, there’s still the majority of it going to areas that we wouldn’t characterize as green [and] we’d say is supporting old pathways,” says Richard Florizone, chair of the task force and CEO of the International Institute for Sustainable Development. The organization focuses on climate, resources, and economic sustainability.

According to Banking on Climate Chaos 2021, a joint report from groups like The Rainforest Action Network, Sierra Club, and others, says that five Canadian banks have funded a large part of the fossil fuel industry: RBC, TD, Scotia Bank, Bank of Montreal, and CIBC.

Greenpeace Communications Officer Jesse Firempong says it’s possible to begin a green recovery now. She says people can help with the climate crisis in three ways: hold fossil fuel companies and government officials accountable, have corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share, and spread more awareness about the climate crisis.

“No one’s saying shut down the tar sands tomorrow, but we are saying stop investing in new projects,” says Firempong. “Stop subsidizing existing projects and focus that money towards renewable energy. Wind and solar are increasingly more affordable.”

Berkeley Canada’s 2019 report on environmental fines and penalties shows from the years 2016 to 2019, violation fees for corporations who break environmental laws have been declining.

She says people can write to their representatives, sign petitions, and use their voices to spread awareness.

“You have a right. You elected them. And if you’re not someone who could vote, they’re still accountable for your community’s wellbeing.”

Although some banks in Canada are funding the fossil fuel industry and corporations aren’t paying their fees, Firempong says she has seen some wins for climate justice. She says the government has implemented the Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act and Bill C-230, which shines a light on issues of uneven amounts of toxic exposure and harm experienced by racialized communities, such as mercury dumpings and water pollution.

The legislation of the act was informed by recommendations made by six environmental advocacy groups, including Ecojustice and West Coast Environmental Law, that addressed five ways the country can get back on track keeping the global temperature below 1.5 C.

“If Canada were to take on a green recovery, I think that would be quite impactful…in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, but also in terms of global leadership…it would also send a really important signal to other countries, they would be able to point to Canada as an example,” says Firempong.

Although Canada is not a leader internationally in establishing a green recovery, getting a jumpstart would mean more economic opportunities for the country in the future, advocates argue.

In addition to the environmental legislation, the Canadian government released a new climate plan to enforce a greener future. The report discusses making electric transportation more accessible and affordable, phasing out fossil fuels, and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. In the last ten years alone, the cost of wind and solar energy has dropped by up to 90 per cent.

Tom Green, the senior climate policy advisor at the David Suzuki Foundation, says they’re working on plans to replace fossil fuels with clean electricity.

The climate advocacy group is working on a project called Zeroing in on Emissions, discussing Canada’s pathway to clean energy. In the report, Green addresses ten feasible energy strategies to have net-zero emissions by 2050.

“If Canada doesn’t do anything about a green recovery, one thing we’re going to miss out on is a whole bunch of economic opportunities because other countries are going to leap ahead in terms of clean technologies and we’re going to be stuck importing,” says Green.

He says tackling the green recovery together is important and that the pandemic has shown that people can come together in times of dire need.

“Sometimes we get stuck in our ways of thinking or not recognizing the importance of tackling the climate emergency, but I am hopeful as a result of being in the pandemic and seeing how we’re all in this together,” he says.

Green is not the only one who thinks the pandemic has shown lessons about how people can tackle the climate emergency.

Environmental author Seth Klein says a green recovery “in some ways made it more possible by the experiments we’ve just had in the pandemic…for years and years, we’ve been told ‘Oh, we can’t do it, the money’s not there.’ And yet, no sooner had the pandemic landed, the government was spending $5 billion a week in emergency responses. So what they really just said there is what was possible all along,”

From March 15 to Oct. 3, 2020, the federal government spent $81 billion on CERB and EI benefits.

Klein’s book, A Good War, explores how we need a “wartime” approach to the climate crisis using lessons taught from the Second World War.

“In this book, I’m telling the story of how in the face of an emergency occurring through a crisis, a civilizational threat, the government throws out the rulebook and things that were deemed politically and economically impossible are suddenly considered,” he says.

“Ironically, the pandemic has reinforced that message again, all of these things we thought were politically and economically impossible, we’ve done in the last 12 months.”

WCEL lawyer Eugene Kung says the pandemic has shown how fragile our economic system is. He says there is an opportunity to build back our economy in a more equitable way that is more reliable to the natural world.

“This opportunity to have a green recovery, to restructure the way that our economy and our society works, you know, for me, is something that is not only possible but essential.”

While there have been setbacks because of the pandemic, Kung says that there are some advantages to being a lawyer focusing on environmental justice.

One advantage is using the law as an essential tool to bring environmental problems to the Supreme Court of Canada and acknowledging the long-term effects of climate change. However, Kung says change in law happens slowly and, in some ways, is a barrier for the dire change we need for a green recovery.

Klein and Kung say Canada needs to do its part to begin a green recovery, as it is one of the countries that have the highest CO2 emissions per capita in the world.

“It’s also about the worldviews that we bring to the table. We talk a lot about reconciliation in this country and colonization,” Kung says.

“One of the things that we don’t really talk about is the role of the story of Canada […] Whether it’s cod fishery in Newfoundland or timber logging here in British Columbia, or asbestos in Quebec, the approach of essentially exploiting a resource until it collapses is part of this mentality that’s gotten us in this situational climate, with the difference being it is a global and essential scale.”

Last year alone, oil and natural gas in Canada contributed $105 billion to the national GDP. The forest industry in Canada is the fourth-largest exporter in the world.

Although Canada is known for being a significant natural resource exporter, Florizone says people have power in fighting against the climate crisis in two other ways: voting and spending habits.

“The power of individuals is really how they vote, both with their actual votes, but also with their pocketbook. Don’t underestimate the power of your voice and pocketbook because it’s much more powerful than you think and much more powerful than it can appear at times.”

Green says people need to act on climate change right away to provide a better future.

“If we don’t do it, it’s just a missed opportunity. The climate emergency also demands that we act right away. So we don’t have time to not do anything on a green recovery and then try and tackle this four or five years from now.”

As the government and climate advocacy groups continue working on a path towards a green recovery, Klein says to keep communicating with federal leaders, people you know and join environmental organizations.

“The things that we’ve been called upon to do in response to the pandemic are an anathema to all of our social instincts — to isolate, stay home, that’s hard,” he says.

“The good news is that what we’re called upon to do in response to the climate emergency is precisely the opposite. To go out and do something grand together,” he says.

To learn more about how you can help with the climate emergency, you can find out here.