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  • How green is Canada’s new government?

    The environmental direction of Canada’s new Liberal Party government is known – easily an improvement on Stephen Harper’s hostile Conservative administration. But the extent to which new prime minister Justin Trudeau (pictured) moves the G7 country away from its tar sands obsession remains to be seen. Particular concern surrounds his commitment to the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline.

    The easy part for environmentalists is to rejoice at the defeat for Harper’s government after nine years in power. Under Harper, the tar sands industry in Alberta had been central to economic policy and, according to the NRDC, Canada is expected to miss its 2020 Copenhagen obligations by a wide margin – mostly due to increased tar sands expansion. As of 2014, Canada is only expected to meet half of its Copenhagen pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 17% below 2005 levels by 2020.

    As prime minister, Harper had also been a strong supporter of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, the purpose of which is to transport oil from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico – a proposal US president Barack Obama has so far refused to either reject or give the go-ahead. Also, this week TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, asked for its US permit application to be put on hold – a move that would see a final decision on the project being taken by Obama’s successor.

    Doubts remain about whether the Trudeau government will be any greener than Harper’s. While stating that he wants ‘people to know that Canada’s years of being less than enthusiastic on the climate-change file are behind us’, Trudeau has worried observers with his support for Keystone and his failure to set any targets for reducing greenhouse gases.

    Unlike Canada’s other major political parties, the Liberals have not set any greenhouse gas reduction targets. Trudeau said in a radio debate 10 days before the election: ‘What we need is not ambitious political targets. What we need is an ambitious plan to reduce our emissions in the country.’ It is possible Trudeau will develop specific targets and was merely trying to not frighten away potential voters during the election campaign, but it is likely that Canada will be at December’s COP21 climate conference in Paris without a national greenhouse gas reduction target.

    Observers of Canadian politics say a lot depends on the extent to which public pressure holds the Trudeau government to its promises and whether Liberals will govern along tight economic lines despite having campaigned on progressive themes. The Liberals’ campaign had a TransCanada oil corporation lobbyist as co-chair and a former BP lobbyist as chief of staff, so it is perhaps no surprise that Trudeau should have supported Keystone. However, international environmentalists may have difficulty reconciling Trudeau’s promising words on climate change with his statement that Keystone was ‘one of the most important infrastructure projects of our generation’.

    With Obama still refusing to take a decision on Keystone’s passage through the US, and an apparent appetite for a lower-carbon economy among the electorate that voted Harper out and Trudeau in, it remains unclear what sort of governance the Liberals will provide on environmental issues.