Environmental politics on the other side of the Atlantic

SciTech Editor Jessie Dolliver sits down with the Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, during her visit to Trinity.

Last week the Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, addressed environmental graduate and undergraduate students in Trinity. The event took a debate format, wherein McKenna answered questions posed by the audience members. She was accompanied by Dr Quentin Crowley, a lecturer in Geology, and the Chancellor of the University, Dr Mary Robinson.

The conversation was about the action necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change. Specific attention was given to Canada’s leadership on climate change, the involvement of young people in dealing with climate change, the role of women in the environmental sector, and the use of innovation for transitioning national economies from carbon intensive to low-carbon or carbon neutral economies. Kevin Vickers, the Canadian ambassador to Ireland, commented that “the event went particularly well”, and added that there was “great collaboration between the students, the Chancellor and Canada’s climate change minister”.

McKenna spoke to Trinity News after the session, discussing further some of the points raised by students. The debate had returned to the state of environmental politics in America several times over the hour, especially regarding the recent withdrawal of the US from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Some have expressed fear that this withdrawal will undermine both the authority of the convention, and also the United Nations itself.

However, according to McKenna, Canada is not very affected by the US’s decision, and intends to proceed as usual. “We just hosted a ministerial meeting, with China and the EU, to really talk about how are we supporting the Paris agreement and the UNFCCC.” McKenna insisted that in spite of the actions of the American administration, “the real message that came out is that the Paris Agreement is non-negotiable – and its irreversible”.

McKenna also explained that, although America has taken actions that are counterproductive, she is still working with American states, cities, and businesses to show “actually, that the story is not that the US is pulling out, the story is that the US is still moving ahead”. She argues that “there is the US administration and then there’s all these other groups and people in the US that are moving forward”. She concluded: “The world is moving forward. The Paris Agreement is the framework for doing that.”

McKenna reiterated that Canada supports the UNFCCC, and that the Canadian government is now trying to “advance the gender agenda” in the UNFCCC. Canada has hosted climate scientists in Montreal and are “doing everything we can to make sure we keep the momentum going. The US is one administration and it can’t stop progress”.

The question of assisting developing countries in dealing with climate change was also raised at the event. Poor countries are the smallest polluters in the world, yet they are often the ones which suffer the worst effects of climate change. Under the agreement made at the 21st Conference of Parties (COP21) of the UNFCCC, developed countries must assist developing ones to mitigate, and adapt to, climate change. This will be through financial schemes or transfers of skills and technology.

McKenna stated that “financing and support of developing countries was essential to getting an ambitious agreement”. That is, the COP21 target of keeping worldwide global warming to beneath 2°C could only be agreed upon with the condition that this assistance was given.

“Very reasonably,” McKenna explains, “developing countries have said ‘we didn’t cause the problem, but we’re feeling the impacts’”. Canada has pledged $2.65 billion (€2.2 bn) in assistance as a result of these negotiations, which may take various forms as “there are a whole variety of different needs, so it depends where you’re at and what your country is looking for in terms of support”. She elaborated that “ultimately it’s for the countries to decide what they need, and how we can support them,” whether that’s through direct aid, private investment, or transferring skills.

McKenna said her government supports both mitigation and adaptation, and have “really seen the huge need for investments in adaptations”. To help poor countries, she argues that “making countries more resilient is going to be a big piece of it”. The Canadian government give assistance through the Green Climate Fund, a UN body which evaluates proposals from developing countries, and also through bilateral assistance and multilateral banks.

Canada has come under scrutiny in the past, as they have set ambitious targets for greenhouse gas reduction, with a 30% reduction of their 2005 emissions pledged by 2030. However the Canadian government and, in particular, Justin Trudeau, have been labelled hypocrites by environmentalists for their continued support of fossil fuel extraction and infrastructure.

In particular, prominent environmentalist Bill McKibben, of the organisation 350.org, called Trudeau a “brother to the old orange guy in Washington” in a recent article for the Guardian. One Canadian student present at the event bemoaned the gap between the government’s words and their actions: between supporting oil sands, offshore oil exploration, and major fossil fuel pipelines it would seem the Canadian government are not entirely opposed to fossil fuels.

In defense of Canada’s actions, McKenna stated: “We are in a transition, and transitions don’t happen overnight. You can’t just say you’re going to turn off one of the major drivers of the Canadian economy, because that’s not going to help. It that it would help if you live in an abstract world, I live in the real world – where people will be very upset and angry, and people need jobs, and we also need money as an economy.” She argued that we are indeed moving toward a cleaner future but that it would take time, and that she understands that people are frustrated.

She reiterated one of her previous points: that not only must large scale action be taken, but also that “we all need to change the way that we’re doing things. I think the market is really the driver – if there is no demand, that will impact on the supply”. However perhaps when there is little to no choice of renewable energy suppliers in a market lacking diversity, demand can not be used to drive systemic change.

McKenna insisted that it was “not realistic” to close fossil fuel mines and plants, but she was enthusiastic about the employment opportunities that accompany an energy sector transition: “I mean it’s really interesting when you look at jobs in renewables. The growth in wind and solar jobs is 12 times that of the regular economy.” McKenna was also hopeful about growth in the clean innovation sector, saying investment is going to go for these solutions that are practical, that are going to make a real difference, and that young people are going to demand”.

The 23rd Conference of Parties (COP23) for the UNFCCC will run for a week in Bonn, Germany, commencing on November 5. McKenna said that “my focus at this COP is going to bring together not just countries but to bring together civil society and the business sector”. The Minister spoke extensively during the event about financing the private sector, and the need for the “right conversations, where you have the big banks and you have the insurance companies, you have the big businesses talking to ministers and governments”.

Canada will host discussions surrounding the Montreal Protocol, a now 30-year old protocol to limit hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) emissions prior to COP23. This, McKenna points out, demonstrates that climate action is “not just about the Paris Agreement – a lot of other things are going on in parallel”.