Left: Jonathan Wilkinson at the Westin in Halifax on Sept. 19, 2018. File photo by Alex Tétreault Right: Steven Guilbeault speaks to reporters at Montreal’s Parc Lafontaine on June 21, 2019. Photo by Josie DesmaraisAlex Tétreault and Josie Desmarais

By Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Published Oct 26, 2021

Justin Trudeau’s new cabinet signals strong support for climate policy but may not be well-received in Alberta, says a political science professor.

Former minister of environment and climate change Jonathan Wilkinson is now minister of natural resources and long-time environmentalist Steven Guilbeault is taking over as environment minister.

These appointments signal environment and climate change are top priorities for the federal government, and “there will not be huge attention to the kinds of regional and industry-related concerns that Alberta has been putting forward,” says Lisa Young, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.

“Seeing that natural resources portfolio go to someone who’s moved from the environment (post), somebody who’s not from Western Canada, I think sends a signal,” she said.

While Wilkinson’s appointment doesn’t signal support for “traditional oil and gas industry in Alberta,” Young says it does indicate support for an energy transition.

“It’s not going to be seen as being conciliatory toward Alberta or the government of Alberta, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not in Alberta’s best interest,” she said.

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After 30 years of fighting climate change outside of government, I am humbled and I am honoured to be given the opportunity to accelerate our fight against climate change as Canada’s new Minister of Environment and Climate Change. pic.twitter.com/vU6zSSdgcK— Steven Guilbeault (@s_guilbeault) October 26, 2021

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Guilbeault’s reception in his new role could prove similar to the abusive reaction Catherine McKenna received when she was appointed environment minister in 2015, Young said.

Because of Guilbeault’s dedication to the climate file both inside and outside of politics and his roots in Quebec, she anticipates conservative circles in Alberta may not take kindly to his appointment.

“We’re certainly in a situation where Quebec commitments around climate change and environmental action are seen as antithetical to Alberta’s interests in some respects, so you’ll see a reaction based on that,” said Young.

Guilbeault was a founding member of Équiterre, a prominent Quebec conservation group, and was involved with the Greenpeace Quebec chapter for 10 years.

According to Colleen Thorpe, executive director of Équiterre, Guilbeault “is very knowledgeable on all of the environmental issues,” particularly the files related to fossil fuel development and transportation. She says his ability to deal with complex issues and “rally people who have different opinions” will serve him well in trying to bring about the “profound changes” necessary to address climate change.

“The bar is high for change, and we’re counting on him to meet the bar,” said Thorpe.

Thorpe notes that Équiterre will continue to demand “important climate action” from the government to address the crisis.

A poll commissioned by the Pembina Institute from earlier this year found two-thirds of Albertans support reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, indicating an appetite for climate action.

If the Alberta government wants to respond to the demand indicated by this poll, then the new environment minister and natural resources minister will be partners in achieving that, said Isabelle Turcotte, director of federal policy at the Pembina Institute.

Turcotte said, to her, these new appointments signal the federal government means business when it comes to tackling emissions from the oil and gas and transportation sectors.

“We know that these two sectors over the last decade, since 2005 — our baseline year for our 2030 target under Paris — these emissions have increased significantly, and they’ve offset the progress we’ve made in other sectors,” she said. “If we do not reverse this trend, Canada does not stand a chance of changing its narrative on climate and really being seen as a leader.”

To advance the federal government’s promises to ensure the oil and gas sector reaches net-zero emissions by 2050, achieve 100 per cent electric vehicle sales by 2035, and progress on other pledges, a pan-governmental approach will be necessary, said Sabaa Khan, director for the climate solutions portfolio at the David Suzuki Foundation.

“Climate change (and) biodiversity loss (are) not issues that remain within the environmental portfolio, they cut across all government departments,” said Khan. “So I think it is a positive sign that we’re seeing the appointment of individuals (who) have that expertise and … can hopefully influence the other departments.”

It’s been an honour to be at the heart of developing Canada’s strengthened climate plan and other transformational climate policies in Canada. I am honoured to be taking on the challenge and opportunity of implementing those policies as Canada’s new Minister of Natural Resources. pic.twitter.com/FXqyfMXqof— Jonathan Wilkinson 🇨🇦 (@JonathanWNV) October 26, 2021

Wilkinson has signalled support for hydrogen and carbon capture technology, both of which have raised concerns from environmentalists for their potential to prop up the oil and gas industry.

A meeting note obtained by Canada’s National Observer through a federal access-to-information request revealed the federal government’s intentions to use existing infrastructure and grey hydrogen production to “kick-start Canada’s hydrogen economy.”

The types of hydrogen produced are colour-coded; grey hydrogen is produced from natural gas (making it the least desirable from a climate perspective), blue is produced from natural gas with carbon capture (CCS) technology, and green is produced using renewable electricity.

Turcotte said that while she hears a lot about blue hydrogen investments, there is significantly less buzz about investments in green hydrogen.

“It’s important for a candidate to ramp up green hydrogen because, in the long run, that is the climate solution,” said Turcotte, noting it’s not a panacea but will play a role where other zero-carbon solutions aren’t practical.

The recently released United Nations Production Gap Report found Canada is planning to increase oil and gas production by nearly 20 per cent from 2019 to 2040 under the Canada Energy Regulator’s latest scenario.

This projected increase in oil and gas production deserves more attention than debates over hydrogen and CCS, Khan said.

“I think that what we have to really emphasize right now and get those ministers to focus on is the fact that we need to have an absolute reduction in production. And right now, Canada’s trajectory is not pointing to that.”

She says Wilkinson can have a big impact when it comes to advancing just transition legislation with a climate lens to create a future climate-safe economy.

The appointments of Guilbeault and Wilkinson are welcome news for Nature Canada, a national conservation charity.

“The science is really showing us that we either solve the climate and nature crisis together or we solve neither,” said Gauri Sreenivasan, policy and campaigns director at Nature Canada.

She said Guilbeault’s task will be putting a credible plan in place to reverse species loss that works with Canada’s climate plan.

As well as overseeing the energy transition, Wilkinson will be tasked with questions of how Canada manages its forests and minerals, said Sreenivasan. She hopes to see increased transparency on the federal government’s two-billion trees program, particularly a commitment to permanent forest growth, which she said, “has not been clear to date.”

In an emailed statement to Canada’s National Observer, Guilbeault said he is “humbled” and “honoured” for the “opportunity to accelerate our fight against climate change” in his new role.

“Canadians gave us a clear mandate to go further and faster on climate action, job creation, and nature protection,” his statement reads. “My priority is to work with Canadians in all parts of the country and all sectors of the economy to get the job done. My first trip as minister of environment and climate change will be to Glasgow for #COP26, where I’ll be pushing for climate ambition around the world with — and on behalf — of Canadians.”

This item is reprinted with permission from Canada’s National Observer. See article HERE.

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