Climate: From Commitments to Implementation – Interview with Monica Gattinger

Published on September 15, 2021, at 11:46 PM (Montreal time),

Jean-François Thibault (JFT): Madam Monica Gattinger, thank you so much for according La parole énergétique this interview. You are Director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy (ISSP), Full Professor at the School of Political Studies and Chair of Positive Energy at the University of Ottawa. On August 11, 2021, you published a blog post called Ensuring Paris isn’t the next Copenhagen, Kyoto, or Rio where you were questioning the practical aspects of Canada’s environmental policies. You wondered if, in the end, they shall work. Could you tell us a bit about the context that led you to publish this piece? What findings made you think this subject needed to be addressed?

Monica Gattinger (MG): Thank you very much for the question and for interviewing me for La parole énergétique. I wrote the piece because of a sense of frustration that Canada continues to make ambitious commitments on climate change but does not succeed in achieving them. There is growing consensus in the country around the need to address climate change, and yet we struggle to do so effectively. The research that we’ve been doing at the University of Ottawa through the Positive Energy program points to the importance of thinking through not only the what of climate policies, but also the how of reducing emissions in the real worlds of politics, federalism, communities, energy security, and investment. This is something that policymakers aren’t paying sufficient attention to when it comes to reducing Canada’s emissions.

JFT: You mention Copenhagen, Kyoto and Rio as examples of failure, in terms of concrete achievements. Why do you think those agreements ended being failures?

MG: International collaboration on climate change is essential, so agreements like these are extremely important. Where they have been failures is when it comes to Canada’s performance. If you chart Canada’s commitments in each agreement against its actual emissions trajectory, you see a pattern of making ambitious commitments at each negotiation – Rio in 1992, Kyoto in 1997, Copenhagen in 2009 – followed by spectacular failure at achieving them. One of the biggest reasons is a lack of attention to how to affectively implement climate policy measures. 

JFT: You say that we, as Canadians, need to take off our implementation blinders. To do so, you consider that various stakeholders need to have confidence in the policies that are proposed, but also in the « decision-making arrangements for innovation and energy projects ». Where do you think different stakeholders lie, right now, in terms of confidence in the policies and processes? What could we do to improve stakeholders’ confidence?

MG: Taking off our implementation blinders means expanding our focus from the substance of policy measures to how to implement them in the real world of politics, society, business, and energy. We often use sophisticated climate policy models to assess whether climate measures will achieve their intended targets, but there are a lot of assumptions built into those models. They have a difficult time taking into account how various players might react. Take energy projects. A lot of climate plans depend on the development and deployment of lower emitting energy sources like solar, wind, hydroelectricity or nuclear power, or a big scale-up in mining operations for the critical minerals needed for batteries for electric vehicles. Will communities support building all these projects? And if they don’t, will investors be prepared to put up the money to finance them? This points to the importance of how we as a society decide whether a new project will be built or not – communities, companies, and investors need to have confidence in how those decisions are made. So do Indigenous peoples. At present, there’s a lot of uncertainty over who decides what, when and how for energy projects in Canada. That weakens everyone’s confidence and hamstrings emissions reduction efforts.

JFT: You mention that energy and climate communities too often work in silos. You say: « There are a lot of missed opportunities and needless friction due to narrow energy- or climate-only approaches. » Where do you think those two groups stand right now, and what would be a potential common ground to pursue a productive dialogue on energy and climate? Do you think those two communities of organizations and professionals shall merge to become one, bigger, united community?

MG: I think we’re at a crucial moment for productive dialogue on energy and climate. Those in the climate movement have been extremely successful at getting climate on political and policy agendas. Those in the energy community have been extremely successful at delivering safe, affordable, and reliable energy. Successful climate action needs to align energy and climate imperatives. If we don’t have affordable reliable energy, climate policy risks taking one step forward and two steps back as citizens and others may push back on climate action. It’s only in bringing the climate and energy communities together that we can deliver on both energy and climate imperatives. I see a growing recognition that this needs to happen, but we don’t always have policy that takes that integrated view. Putting the focus on implementation – taking off those implementation blinders – opens up many opportunities for productive collaboration. Technological innovation is a great example. Developing technologies requires thinking through the energy regulatory frameworks, financing arrangements and community engagement and partnerships needed to successfully take innovations from the lab bench to start-up to scale-up. We are beginning to see energy and climate leaders coming together on precisely these sorts of questions. 

JFT: You plead for more collaboration between all stakeholders, including First Nations, different level of governments, businesses, and researchers. Looking more specifically at different level of governments’ collaboration, we observe that many provinces have different approaches when it comes to energy and climate policy. Some of them completely differ from the federal government perspectives on those topics. Plus, there is also the question of provincial autonomy that needs to be considered. For example, the Quebec government have approximatively the same targets than the federal government but does not want the federal government to intervene in its provincial jurisdiction. What do you think federal and provincial leaders could do to collaborate more efficiently? Do you think climate action could lead to constitutional debate and reform?

MG: This is a crucial question. Canada has one of the most divided and decentralized constitutional arrangements for energy of any western industrialized country. Provinces have jurisdiction over most energy activities in their borders and have developed a variety of different approaches to both energy and climate. Reducing Canada’s emissions will require substantial collaboration, but this needn’t mean harmonization or centralization of power by the federal government. This is again where attention to implementation matters: the federal government needs to work with the provinces where and when it can. It is a huge achievement that Canada now has a price on carbon that applies across the country. That was done thanks to federal and provincial leaders seizing a window of opportunity when they were in alignment on climate issues. It was also thanks to a policy design that allowed for provincial variation. That respect for difference is key.

Looking forward, political leaders need to identify those moments when collaboration is possible and seize on them when they can. They need to exercise political skill, leadership, and a willingness to look past partisan differences to work together. That could be at the pan-Canadian level or between a subset of provinces or a small number of provinces with the federal government, as we’re seeing now on small modular nuclear reactors. Long term, I don’t think climate action will lead to constitutional debate and reform – that is simply too contentious in this country – but rather, to creative use of federal and provincial powers to collaborate on emissions reductions.  

JFT: Finally, you think Canada needs to decide what role it wants its oil and gas industry to play in the future, both domestically and internationally. As you underline, the oil and gas sector’s debate tempts to be polarized. How do you think different stakeholders, especially coming from different backgrounds and perspectives, can rationally and constructively dialogue on this topic?

MG: While the debate between leaders tends to be polarized, Canadians are not nearly as divided on oil and gas as commonly believed. We have done a lot of public opinion polling research and Canadians see a strong role for oil and gas in Canada’s current and future economy. They are particularly supportive where Canadian oil and gas has a lower carbon footprint then oil and gas produced elsewhere. This is an area where the debate has tended to be rather simplistic and frequently out of touch with emissions improvements over the last decade. What’s also been missing from debates is a long term perspective that looks at how the industry can transform in the coming decades to diversify and produce other energy sources like hydrogen or other products like carbon fiber. Oil and gas will continue to be part of the global energy mix even if we achieve net zero by 2050. What we have not had in this country is a robust policy discussion of whether there’s a niche for Canada in that future. Starting those discussions requires meeting people where they’re at: understanding their concerns about the industry, responding to their questions and putting in place mechanisms to build confidence in industry efforts to reduce emissions.