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Catherine McKenna turns focus to implementing policies to address climate change

McKenna's climate climb

With the pan-Canadian agreement and the Paris accord signed, rookie Environment Minister turns her focus to implementation, Shawn McCarthy reports

Steam rises as people look out on Lake Ontario in front of the skyline during extreme cold weather in Toronto on Saturday, February 13, 2016. Canada is a land of extremes, from car-freezing cold to crop-searing heat and drenching rains to drought. By 2050, within the life expectancy of most Canadians, scientists say that if current emissions levels remain unchanged, climate change will be well established.

After spending the past 13 months focused on international and national climate negotiations, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna will turn her attention in 2017 to the more prosaic work of implementation – ensuring that what was agreed to at high-profile political summits is acted upon.

The pan-Canadian climate agreement signed earlier this month by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and 11 provincial and territorial premiers includes a plan for Ottawa to impose a carbon price on provinces that refuse to adopt their own by 2018.

Ms. McKenna and her cabinet colleagues will have to figure out how to handle Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall's opposition to any carbon tax in his province, and determine whether Manitoba's vague commitment to put a price on greenhouse gas emissions meets Ottawa's minimum threshold. The environment and climate change minister is charged with passing legislation on a federal carbon-price backstop over the course of the next year.

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But carbon pricing is only the most controversial part of Canada's wide-ranging policy to meet greenhouse-gas-emission reductions pledged under the United Nations accord reached in December in Paris.

In total, the federal-provincial-territorial agreement promises action on 54 specific items that include carbon pricing as well as a slew of regulations, tougher standards and spending measures. The policies are meant to reduce emissions, prepare Canada to adapt to the impacts of climate change and help the growing clean-technology sector take advantage of the opportunities – both domestic and in export markets – that will arise from the transition to a low-carbon economy.

After two failed tries under the 1997 Kyoto and 2009 Copenhagen agreements, the Liberals have once again committed to international targets under the Paris deal. Fulfilling that pledge will require a sustained, multiyear effort of the federal government and provinces.

Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna says climate change’s effects are felt, especially in the North.

Ms. McKenna will be spearheading that drive, though even at the federal level it will require commitment by the whole government across several key ministries including finance, natural resources, innovation and economic development, and transportation.

For the rookie minister, the challenge now is both to deliver the action that falls under her mandate, but also to be a tireless advocate for the pan-Canadian climate accord and ensure her colleagues are not diverted by their own pressing agendas and scarce resources.

Just 14 months ago, Ms. McKenna was a long-shot candidate who had never run for public office, trying to knock off a popular New Democratic Party MP in the riding of Ottawa Centre. In a surprise move, Mr. Trudeau appointed the 44-year-old lawyer as environment minister, and just days after her swearing in, she travelled to Paris for presummit meetings. A few weeks later, she played a prominent role in the negotiations that secured the deal.

Read more: Canada won't be swayed from carbon moves by U.S., Trudeau says

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Throughout 2016, she led the effort to win the agreement of the provinces and territories for the pan-Canadian strategy, though Mr. Trudeau's principal secretary, Gerald Butts, played an important behind-the-scenes role.

She has no doubt that the threat of climate change is ominous, and the impacts are beginning to be felt, especially in Canada's North. Being a parent of three young children strengthens her resolve to pursue solutions, she said in an interview in her Parliament Hill office.

"I have three kids and there really is no more important issue than climate change," she said, as she welled up with emotion. "So you can be focused on the nitty-gritty of negotiations but stepping back, you realize it is going to be a lot of hard work but that this is the time you have to step up."

Here are the measures from the pan-Canadian strategy that, in addition to carbon pricing, Ms. McKenna and her colleagues intend to implement next year and beyond.

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Emission reductions

Electricity accounted for 11 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2014.

Electricity accounted for 11 per cent of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions in 2014. The lion's share came from four provinces – Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – that still rely on coal-fired generating stations.

Prior to the first ministers' meeting, Ottawa announced it would require provinces to phase out the use of traditional coal-fired power by 2030, accelerating a timetable laid down by the former Conservative government in 2012.

Alberta was already pursuing its own 2030 phase-out plan and by the time the first ministers met, the federal government had agreed to work out deals with Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan that would allow them some flexibility to keep plants open, so long as they achieve equivalent emissions reductions to the federal plan.

The federal government will work with provinces to set regulations for natural-gas-fired plants. Governments will fund transmission lines to replace coal and natural gas with hydroelectric power and renewable sources such as wind and solar. And they will support the modernization of the electricity grid to incorporate renewable energy, energy storage and sources of power generated by small producers into the system.

Utilities see business opportunities in the shift to a lower-carbon system, particularly in the move to electric vehicles and investment in infrastructure. But they also worry about costs, said Sergio Marchi, president of the Canadian Electricity Association, which represents the industry.

"Canadians value environmental outcomes but they also demand safe, reliable and affordable electricity," Mr. Marchi said. "That is why, in this transition, electricity companies require the flexibility to deliver the greatest level of emissions reductions at the lowest cost to customers," he said in a statement after the plan was released.

Having contributed 12 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2014, buildings represent ‘low hanging fruit’ for emissions reductions by changing how they’re heated and cooled, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says.

Buildings contributed 12 per cent of Canada's GHGs in 2014, primarily through heating and cooling, and represent "low hanging fruit" for emissions reductions, Ms. McKenna said.

Ottawa so far has not signalled it will revive the energy retrofit programs that were popular a decade ago. The federal government will instead focus on standards by developing increasingly stringent building codes, starting in 2020, with the goal of a "net zero energy ready" standard by 2030.

That 2030 target would feature high-insulation, high-efficiency designs to keep energy needs to a level that could be supplied by power generated on site by solar panels or geothermal. Governments also agreed to work on standards for retrofitting existing buildings, with mandatory labelling of energy use required when a home or commercial building is sold.

Home builders are warning Ottawa to proceed cautiously on the new home standards so that more stringent codes don't drive up prices and contribute to an affordability problem.

Transportation accounted for 23 per cent of the Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2014. It is difficult to achieve emissions reductions in this area, particularly in an era of low oil prices.

Transportation accounted for 23 per cent of the country's emissions output in 2014. It is difficult to achieve reductions in this area, particularly in an era of low oil prices when consumers are not focused on the need for fuel efficiency.

The government is promising a low-carbon fuel standard that will require distributors of gas and diesel – as well as home heating fuels – to reduce the average carbon content of the fuels, whether through the use of renewable sources such as biofuels, or through the adoption of electric-vehicle charging stations, developing a detailed plan to implement that standard is a major priority for Ms. McKenna.

Governments are promoting electric vehicles and financing a network of charging stations. Ottawa committed $62-million in the 2016 budget for charging stations and other low-carbon infrastructure.

Ottawa has also moved with the United States to impose increasingly stringent fuel economy regulations on light-duty, heavy-duty and off-road vehicles. However, U.S. president-elect Donald Trump may reverse some of that effort, which would force states such as California to take the lead.

Adaptation

The impacts of climate change are already being felt in Canada, the federal-provincial strategy document says, and taking action to adapt will help protect Canadians from risks and reduce the costs of extreme weather events such as floods and heat waves.

Infrastructure resilience: The first ministers committed to investments in infrastructure that will strengthen the country's ability to absorb climate impacts. However, critics suggest Ottawa has forged ahead with a multiyear infrastructure plan in which projects are not being screened for climate resilience.

University of Waterloo professor Blair Feltmate, who heads the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, said federal and provincial politicians have not highlighted the need for the country to prepare for global warming, but are quietly preparing the ground.

"Although both the federal and provincial governments don't popularize their commitment to adaptation, there is a quiet migration in policy and practice to de-risk Canada from extreme weather events," Dr. Feltmate said. "It is perplexing that the governments don't publicly declare their commitment to adaptation more aggressively."

Home builders warn Ottawa to proceed cautiously on new house standards so codes don’t drive up prices.

Developing codes and standards: In the climate plan, governments pledge to revise building codes not only to reduce energy use and GHG emissions, but to withstand the anticipated impacts of a changing climate. The new standards would cover residential, commercial and industrial buildings, but also include guidance for public infrastructure such as roads, ports and the electricity system.

Supporting vulnerable regions: The first ministers noted that some regions are particularly vulnerable to climate impacts, including the Arctic and coastal areas. Governments pledged to support research, make investments in infrastructure and engage indigenous communities to monitor the impact of climate change in their communities.

Innovation and jobs

The first ministers' accord is titled "a pan-Canadian framework for clean growth and climate change," with the emphasis on growth suggesting an economic payoff in terms of boosting middle-class jobs and incomes. Just back from an economic mission to China, Ms. McKenna says companies here can tap into a booming market for environmental goods and services.

Canada has seen its share of the global clean-tech market decline over the past decade, and the federal-provincial-territorial accord lays out some strategies to reverse that trend.

Support research and commercialization: Virtually all governments have increased their efforts to provide financial backing to promising startups that focus on environmental performance or clean energy. Ottawa also promised to expedite the immigration process for highly qualified personnel, and to focus its export-support programs on the sector.

Foster adoption: Governments say they will green their own operations, in part to provide a market for domestic companies that offer energy efficiency and other clean technologies. Ottawa is pledging to power 100 per cent of its buildings with renewable energy by 2025.

The federal and provincial governments will undoubtedly face growing political pressure as they increase spending on the complex and ambitious agenda they set for themselves with their pan-Canadian climate deal.

The plan is driven by the conviction that climate change is upon us, and that the country must do its part to limit the increase in average temperatures while preparing for its impact. The alternative, Ms. McKenna said, is to face far more onerous costs in the future.

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