Top Five Climate and Environment Issues for Obama-Trudeau Bilateral Summit

The strained relationship between Canada and the U.S. over the last decade was in no small part due to disagreement over the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline. 
 
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper was a staunch supporter of what he called the “no-brainer” project. President Obama, on the other hand, felt like all sorts of brain should be involved when deciding on the future of such major fossil fuel infrastructure. And he rightfully rejected the border crossing pipeline project, which had clearly failed his climate test.
 
Now, with Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the helm of America’s Hat, the two most intimately tied economies in the developed world have a lot of catching up to do. Even with Keystone XL dead and buried (sort of), environment and energy issues are still top of mind for the two leaders.
 
In a recent Q and A with the Huffington Post, Trudeau acknowledged the timing is right for bold leadership on climate change and the environment: “There is a nice alignment between a Canadian Prime Minister who wants to get all sorts of things done right off the bat and an American President who is thinking about the legacy he is going to leave in his last year in office,” Mr. Trudeau said.
 
“The issues that are important to him and to me are climate change.”
 
Obama and Trudeau already had an informal ‘bromance’ meeting soon after the new Prime Minister took office in November 2015. But now, with the unprecedented Paris Agreement behind them, the two leaders have an incredible opportunity to break new ground on climate action and environmental protection at this formal summit.
 
Here are the top five energy and environment issues these self-proclaimed climate leaders should have on their agenda:

1. North American Climate Change Strategy 

Rumors have already spread about the signing of a continental climate change plan between Canada and the U.S. that will focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions on both sides of the border.
 
Recently Canada’s international trade minister Chrystia Freeland told the Globe and Mail that a North American climate agreement is a priority for Trudeau at the bilateral talks this week.
 
Freeland, who chairs the cabinet committee on Canada-U.S. relations, said officials are working on a climate and environment package for Obama and Trudeau to announce during the summit. The agreement is expected to focus on emissions from the transportation sector, strengthening fuel emissions standards and spurring the production and use of electric vehicles and ride-sharing apps.
 
Trudeau recently hosted a First Ministers’ Meeting in Canada that brought together provincial, federal and indigenous leaders to discuss the issue of climate change. The meeting resulted in the Vancouver Declaration, a document that outlines a new climate change negotiating process for the country that will give Trudeau a better sense of what Canada can offer to a continental strategy.
 
Todd Stern, White House envoy, told reporters in Washington that a part of the climate strategy on the table will involve 40 to 45 per cent reductions in methane emissions from the oil and gas sector from 2012 levels by 2025.
 
2. Drilling in a Climate-Threatened Arctic 

Environmental organizations on both sides of the border recognize the bilateral talks as a prime opportunity to impose a moratorium on oil drilling in the pristine and ecologically sensitive Arctic — something insiders say is unlikely to happen.
 
Obama and Trudeau are expected to address the issue of the Arctic specifically as a part of their larger climate and environment strategy.
 
In recent years, Arctic sea ice has been at an all time low while rising sea levels have accelerated coastal erosion and melting permafrost has threatened the structural integrity of northern infrastructure. Some Arctic communities have already been forced to relocate, placing indigenous cultures and traditional ways of life under threat.
 
The agreement announced at the Obama-Trudeau Summit is expected to include measures to protect sensitive marine areas in the Arctic and bring more renewable energy to remote communities to eliminate the high use of diesel which produces a soot by-product known as ‘black carbon’ that further exacerbates ice melt.
 
A ban on Arctic drilling is not expected to form part of the agreement.
 
“Drilling is all risk and no reward,” Franz Matzner from the Natural Resources Defense Council told The Globe and Mail. “And now it is a perfect opportunity to take it off the table.”
 
The U.S. is currently the chair of the Arctic Council, a position held by Canada for the last two years. Environmentalists would like to see the U.S. set an example in the Arctic by refusing to grant new oil and gas leases.
 
There is currently no active drilling in the Arctic although exploratory activity is taking place in the Beaufort Sea.

3. Off Fossil Fuels, On to Clean Energy

At the December 2015 Paris climate talks both Canada and the U.S. agreed to limit global temperature increase to two degrees Celsius and to create carbon neutral economies by 2050. Both countries have also promised to eliminate the use of fossil fuels by 2100.
 
The fossil fuel industry is subsidized to the tune of $20 billion in the U.S. each year and roughly $5.6 billion in Canada. Both countries have pledged, along with all other G20 nations, to end fossil fuel subsidies although no significant progress has been made. In fact, Canada appears to be moving in the wrong direction: last year investment in renewables skyrocketed around the world but dropped by 46 per cent in Canada.
 
Alternately, the U.S. is the second largest clean energy economy after China. In 2015 the U.S. invested $56 billion in renewables, an increase of seven per cent from 2015, according to Clean Energy Canada.
 
Canada and the U.S. have the capacity to integrate clean energy grids across the border. But this will only represent meaningful climate progress if investments in clean energy are used to accelerate a major transition off fossil fuel-based energy systems.
 
Obama already has a Clean Power Plan (currently stalled in litigation) that will allow states to purchase clean Canadian power. According to the North American Electric Reliability Council this could lead to Canada tripling its clean energy exports to the U.S. by 2030.

4. Mining Regulations 

Tensions regarding Canadian mining regulations are at an all time high between British Columbia and Alaska after the collapse of the Mount Polley mine tailings pond in August 2014. An estimated 24 million cubic metres of mining waste were released into Quesnel Lake, a pristine source of drinking water and spawning grounds for a large portion of B.C.’s sockeye salmon.
 
The accident exposed poor mining practices and an inadequate regulatory regime in the province.
 
Since then, Alaskans near the border have voiced concern over the 10 new mines in construction or proposed for northwestern B.C. A tailings pond breach at one of the new mines, one of which is operated by Imperial Metals, the owner of the Mount Polley mine, could devastate a local economy dependent on tourism and fishing.
 
There are only five mines operating in Alaska, none of which use wet tailings ponds for waste storage. Only two of those mines are near salmon runs in southeast Alaska.
 
Growing concerns that Alaskans aren’t given adequate input into the decision-making process could be allayed by an appeal to the International Join Commission, a body established to resolve Canada/U.S. water disputes. 

5. Trans Pacific Partnership 

The TPP is one of the most controversial and secretive international trade deals ever brokered. In October 2015 Canada and the U.S. along with 10 other nations finalized the details of the TPP although the agreement has yet to be ratified.
 
If adopted the TPP will introduce new measures to protect fossil fuel giants and their profits from effective climate policies. Just like under the North American Free Trade Agreement, the TPP deal includes provisions that allow corporations to sue countries that limit the extraction of oil, gas and coal or the release of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.
 
While Canada and the U.S. at the highest level are promising to implement meaningful climate policies — policies that are critical to achieving targets enshrined in the Paris Agreement — international trade deals give companies the right to sue if those policies hurt their bottom line.
 
The White House touted the environmental benefits of the trade deal, saying it is a “once-in-a-generation chance to protect our oceans, wildlife and the environment.” But Karthik Ganapathy of 350.org told ThinkProgress the deal is “an absolute disaster for our climate.”
 
Although Trudeau has indicated he is pro trade and that the TPP represents an important opportunity for Canada, the deal was negotiated under the previous federal government with little to no public accountability or disclosure. This conflicts with Trudeau’s commitment to transparency in government.
 
Perhaps Trudeau, who promised to consider Canadians’ concerns as well as indigenous rights in light of the agreement, could reopen crucial elements of the deal for discussion with the U.S.
 
But I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one.

Image: PMO press gallery