11/04/2016 04:00 EDT | Updated 11/04/2016 04:12 EDT

Why Are Our Environmental Groups Supporting Weak Climate Targets?

Canada is far behind many other countries when it comes to meeting its carbon reduction targets. Canadians probably believe that our major environmental groups are busy lobbying and pushing the federal and provincial governments to do much more. But no, this is not the case.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Protesters take part in a rally held the day before the start of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21), in Ottawa, Canada, November 29, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Canada is far behind many other countries when it comes to meeting its carbon reduction targets. We have an "inadequate" ranking on the international mechanism tracking carbon emitters, says Climate Action Tracker.  Many other countries/regions, such as Norway, the European Union, the United States and China, are well ahead of us.

Meanwhile, the federal government's recently announced that all Canadian jurisdictions must adopt a carbon pricing scheme by 2018 with a minimum price of $10 per tonne. The price must rise to reach $50 per tonne by 2022. The goal of reducing emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 will not get Canada anywhere close to its promises to the United Nations.

The Canadian targets are "nothing short of a disaster for the climate," says Green Party leader Elizabeth May.

Canadians probably believe that our major environmental groups are busy lobbying and pushing the federal and provincial governments to do much more. But no, this is not the case.

Strangely, while many individual groups carry out excellent and productive projects, the country's environmental community is doing very little to pressure governments to do a better job.

No group criticizing the government

A survey of the top 20 or so environmental organizations shows -- from what I could find -- that not one group is conducting an ongoing, strategic campaign lobbying the federal government for not doing more.

Some groups have made one-off statements criticizing the government, but these do not constitute a campaign.

Greenpeace's Keith Stewart did say that "thirty per cent by 2030 isn't good enough. We have to go farther." But it does not seem that the organization will be lobbying governments re carbon levels.

The David Suzuki Foundation applauded the Trudeau government for creating a national climate action plan. The Foundation gives no indications it will urge the government to do better.

Environmental Defence has said the government's action was a step forward, but added that there are real issues. Organization National Program Manager Dale Marshall wrote: "The long delay before the carbon price reaches levels that can take a real bite out of Canada's emissions puts Canada's international commitments -- no matter how weak -- in jeopardy."

CAN fails to show leadership

The Climate Action Network (CAN) is made up of a wide collection of about 100 environmental and public interest groups. CAN is the network that would be expected to conduct a serious campaign. However, it chose to endorse the mediocre goals set by the government.

".... Prime Minster Trudeau showed conviction when it comes to putting a price on carbon across Canada," said Catherine Abreu, CAN Executive Director.

CAN believes it can accomplish more working within the system as opposed to criticizing the government from the outside. Network leaders make much of the fact that CAN was one of the groups the government consulted during the process of setting the carbon reduction targets. However, with the government coming in with the lowest possible target, CAN apparently didn't have much influence during the process.

If anything, the government co-opted CAN to accept its positions.

CAN leaders believe they have an edge in influencing the federal government because three former environmental leaders hold key positions in the government.

  • Gerald Butts, formerly president and CEO of the World Wildlife Fund, is Senior Political Advisor to Prime Minister Trudeau. But earlier he held key positions with the Ontario Liberals.  Earlier he had worked with the Ontario Liberals.
  • Marlo Raynolds, formerly with BluEarth Renewables and the Pembina Institute, is Chief of Staff for Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna. He was a losing Liberal candidate in the last federal election.
  • John Brodhead is Chief of Staff with Infrastructure and Communities Minister Amarjeet Sohi. Formerly he was Executive Director at Evergreen CityWorks, a national environmental charity that focuses on green urban planning and infrastructure policy. He too had earlier worked for the Ontario Liberals. 

It's questionable whether the three long-time Liberals will influence climate change policy in any meaningful way. The three men are there to serve the interests of the government and, having worked in Liberal politics before, they know it. Their main job is to keep things moving smoothly for the government and helping the government get re-elected.

Naturally, from the point of view of a government leader, Justin Trudeau is more interested in creating his vision of a healthy economy instead of carrying out a full attack on climate change.

Climate groups must keep their focus

However, environmental groups should not be more concerned about the government's economic issues than climate policy. If groups staged a massive campaign aimed at solving climate problems, perhaps the government could be convinced to move some of the billions it plans to spend on infrastructure over to climate change.

The government may be pleased that it's not being criticized by the environmental community. However, if the government wants to make progress on the climate change file they need to be lobbied strongly by climate groups to help keep the powerful fossil fuel industry at bay.

Elizabeth May recently told a small group of environmental lobbyists that she is disappointed by the lack of aggressive action from the community on the targets that have been set.

In terms of what groups should be lobbying for, May set out a number of suggestions, including ending federal fossil fuel subsidies, creating a robust climate adaptation strategy coordinated by a dedicated federal agency, and the provision of more green venture capital funds to take great and proven ideas and move them to commercialization.

Of course it's not too late for the environmental community to change its ways. It needs to undergo a tremendous amount of self-evaluation. Concerning climate change, it lacks focus and organization. Groups need to end their isolation and begin cooperating with each other. The total income of the community is in the range of$225-million annually.

Imagine what could be accomplished if 10 per cent of this amount were used to create a massive carbon reduction campaigning program.

You can read more of Nick's posts from his blog - A Different Point of View

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