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The war in Ukraine threatens to distract us from the climate crisis

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine does not change the fact of climate change – a reality brought home again by another stark report from the UN’s climate change panel two weeks ago.

But the ramifications of this war are being used to raise new questions about Canadian climate and energy policy.

With gas prices surging a week after Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine, Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown wrote to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to suggest that she delay the annual increase in the federal carbon tax, slated to take effect on April 1. “Now is the wrong time for any new burden,” he said.

You could be forgiven for suspecting that Brown’s new interest in federal climate policy has something to do with the fact that he’s about to enter the Conservative Party’s leadership race. Whatever his motives, the merits of Brown’s proposed pause are dubious.

the war in ukraine threatens to distract us from the climate crisis
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown has called on Ottawa to pause the next scheduled increase in the carbon tax. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

While the higher carbon fee will add 2.2 cents per litre to the price of gas, carbon pricing’s critics tend to ignore the fact that nearly all of the revenue it collects is rebated back to households in provinces covered by the federal policy – and most households end up receiving more than they pay out.

Because of fuel consumption patterns, only Ontario households in the top two income quintiles were expected to pay more than they received when projections were published by the Parliamentary Budget Officer in 2020.

But Brown’s call for a pause (which has been echoed by federal Conservatives and conservative provincial governments in Alberta, New Brunswick and Ontario) also assumes that climate policy is something less than necessary — that reducing emissions is a priority only when it’s not inconvenient.

A bad precedent

Between now and 2050 — the target date for bringing the world’s greenhouse gas emissions down to net-zero — there will be many moments when leaders are tempted to deviate from the goal of reducing emissions and moving to a clean economy.

However much policymakers need to account for the practical impacts of climate action, suspending a planned increase in the carbon tax now could set a troublesome precedent.

Coupled with the attacks on the federal carbon tax are calls for a renewed push to export Canadian oil and gas.

Europe relies on Russia for a significant amount of its energy. Those Russian exports help fund Putin’s regime and complicate European efforts to sanction Russia. If reducing that reliance is important, maybe Canadian oil and liquefied natural gas could help replace those Russian resources. Or so the thinking goes.

“Alberta can be a stable supplier of Liquefied Natural Gas to the countries threatened by Putin’s dictatorship,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney tweeted this week.

Pipelines aren’t the answer

A week earlier, the federal Conservatives put a motion before the House of Commons that called on the Liberal government to prioritize the construction of new pipelines to the East Coast to carry liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe.

In proposing the motion, Conservative MP Michael Chong argued that LNG can be environmentally beneficial if it’s used to displace high-emissions coal. But building a pipeline is easier said than done — and even in an ideal scenario it doesn’t seem like a short-term solution.

As Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault noted enthusiastically in a speech he delivered in Toronto on Wednesday, Europe is not simply aiming to replace Russian oil and gas with fossil fuels from less problematic countries. A plan proposed by the European Union this week relies on both diversifying energy sources and moving faster to increase energy efficiency and develop renewable and clean energy.

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Ukrainian protesters demonstrate on Thursday, March 10, 2022 near the Chateau de Versailles in France, where European Union leaders were gathering to discuss the fallout of Russia’s invasion. (Michel Euler/AP)

With that in mind, Guilbeault proposed that Canada could be “uniquely positioned” to help Europe as a source of non-emitting technology, critical minerals and hydrogen.

Asked about the immediate needs of Europe, Guilbeault said that Canada could increase its exports of crude oil by about 200,000 barrels per day, which could allow the United States to send an equivalent amount across the Atlantic.

Looking further into the future, Guilbeault said that the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion could be finished by the end of next year (although it is supposed to serve the Asian market) and LNG Canada’s project in British Columbia could be completed in two to three years.

A day earlier, in an interview with CBC’s Power & Politics, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson sounded slightly more bullish on the possibilities for Canadian oil and gas.

‘It’s not just about drilling holes’

“I think there may be pathways for us to support our European colleagues that are consistent with fighting climate change. And that means you have to produce oil and natural gas in a very low emissions way,” he said.

On that score, he pointed to regulations on methane emissions, work being done on carbon capture and sequestration and a cap on emissions from the oil and gas sector.

“In fact, if you actually saw enhanced production from Canada that’s done in a low emissions way, that can fit within our overall targets for climate,” he said. “It actually would be better for the world economy or the global climate because Russia doesn’t do that …

“But you’ve got to do it in the right way. It’s not just about drilling holes. It’s about actually how you manage the emissions in a thoughtful and constructive way.”

Wilkinson suggested LNG could be part of the transition to hydrogen.

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A map of the Bay du Nord project, located some 500 kilometres east of St. John’s. (Equinor)

It’s not clear whether he was talking about something more than the Trans Mountain expansion and LNG Canada — but Guilbeault just gave himself until mid-April to make a decision about the Bay du Nord LNG project proposed for Newfoundland.

By then, Guilbeault also will have had to present to Parliament a new climate plan explaining how Canada can reach its emissions reductions target for 2030.

“Crises can be moments when we see clearly,” said Caroline Brouillette of the Climate Action Network, one of several organizations that has called on the federal government to reject Bay du Nord.

“The federal government needs to be honest with Canadians that our economy’s reliance on a volatile commodity is making us vulnerable — both in the face of Putin’s use of gas as an economic weapon and in the face of the climate crisis.”

At the very least, it’s up to the proponents of new oil and gas developments to demonstrate how they can be conducted responsibly. To pursue Bay du Nord or any other project in the “right way” presumably means showing how it fits within this country’s climate goals.

The war in Ukraine is profoundly important. But the battle against climate change still has to be fought.

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