First Ministers’ Climate Change Agreement Marks a New Beginning

The Vancouver Declaration is an important step forward in Canada’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Prime Minster Trudeau met with Canada’s premiers on March 3. The meeting kick-started a process to create a national framework to combat climate change. It was held 82 days after the international Paris Agreement was completed, and thus fulfills a pledge made by the federal Liberals in their election platform.

The First Ministers of Canada emerge from discussions on climate change. (Image source).
The First Ministers of Canada emerge from discussions on climate change. (Image source).

I am encouraged by the result, as formalized in the Vancouver Declaration. The Prime Minister and premiers jointly recognized the reality of climate change and made firm commitments for action with timelines. The commitments are measurable and represent important steps forward. We need to insist that every Premier follows through in a timely manner, and hold their feet to the fire if it looks like they aren’t going to live up to their commitments.

There are a few causes for concern, including what appears to be a pipeline loophole. I will list these issues at the end, in the hope that they will be addressed. But first, let’s review the many positive aspects of what was agreed in Vancouver.

The Good Stuff

The First Ministers (Prime Minister and Premiers) agreed that

“the cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action with regard to GHG emissions mitigation and adaptation to the impacts of climate change.”

This statement represents a significant departure from the Harper years, when action on climate change was viewed as too costly. The First Ministers further recognized that

“the Paris Agreement will require global emissions to approach zero by the second half of the century”


“the transition to a climate-resilient and low carbon economy by 2050 is necessary to ensure the future prosperity of Canada and Canadians”.

These statements give a strong signal to the marketplace. Canada’s approach to climate change is changing.

To combat climate change, the First Ministers made firm commitments to:

  1. Implement GHG mitigation policies in support of meeting or exceeding Canada’s 2030 target of a 30% reduction below 2005 levels of emissions, including specific provincial and territorial targets and objectives;

  2. Increase the level of ambition of environmental policies over time in order to drive greater GHG emissions reductions, consistent with the Paris Agreement;

  3. Ensure deep reductions in GHG emissions and a competitive economy, provide certainty to business, and contribute global solutions to a global issue;

  4. Transition to a low carbon economy by adopting a broad range of domestic measures, including carbon pricing mechanisms, adapted to each province’s and territory’s specific circumstances, in particular the realities of Canada’s Indigenous peoples and Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. The transition also requires that Canada engage internationally;

  5. Implement strong, complementary adaptation policies within our respective jurisdictions to address climate risks facing our populations, infrastructures, economies and ecosystems, in particular in Canada’s northern regions; and

  6. Implement a collaborative, science-based approach to inform Canada’s future targets that will increase in stringency as required by the Paris Agreement.

The remaining commitments are less firm in that they require the First Ministers to “encourage”, “foster”, “work together” and so on.

Each of these commitments is significant. I am particularly encouraged that the agreement calls for a price on carbon. The reliance on science to inform the process is another welcome departure from the Harper years.

As part of the implementation plan, the First Ministers agreed to establish working groups in the following areas:

  • Clean technology, innovation and jobs;
  • Carbon pricing mechanisms;
  • Specific mitigation opportunities; and
  • Adaptation and climate resilience.

The working groups will be required to report back to the “ministerial tables charged with overseeing their work” (presumably the various ministers of the environment), who will make recommendations to the First Ministers. The reports will be made public.

The timeline established by the Declaration is as follows:

  • September 2016: Working group reports submitted governments
  • October 2016: Recommendations made to First Ministers and reports made public
  • Fall 2016: First Ministers meet “to finalize the pan-Canadian framework on clean growth and climate change, and review progress on the Canadian Energy Strategy”;
  • Early 2017: Framework implementation completed.

The timeline is ambitious, as is appropriate given the urgent need to begin reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Causes for Concern

There are three causes for concern, which I enumerate here in the hope that they will be addressed:

  1. The greenhouse gas emissions targets given in the Declaration are those of the Harper government, derided as follows by the federal Liberal election platform:

    “We believe that Harper’s targets are inadequate and meaningless without a plan to achieve them.” (A new plan for Canada’s environment and economy, pg. 4)

    I anticipate that more ambitious targets will be set as the framework is developed.

  2. There is nothing in the agreement about fossil fuel subsidies. This is a surprising omission, especially given the federal Liberals’ commitment to eliminate them:

    “We will fulfill our G20 commitment and phase out subsidies for the fossil fuel industry over the medium-term.” (Main platform, pg. 40)

    I will write more about this important issue in a post to come.

  3. A statement at the end of the Declaration stands out as peculiar:

    “Federal, provincial and territorial Energy Ministers will collaborate on specific actions being undertaken through the Canadian Energy Strategy, including energy conservation and efficiency, clean energy technology and innovation and delivering energy to people and global markets, in order to contribute to the pan-Canadian framework on clean growth and climate change.” (emphasis mine)

    This appears to provide a loophole for building new pipelines. As I have pointed out, building new fossil fuel infrastructure is inconsistent with making progress on the climate change problem. We need to pump less oil, not more. This is an issue to watch closely.


The March 2016 First Ministers Meeting was the first attended by a Prime Minister since 2009.