Declaring a ‘Climate Emergency’ Is Meaningless Without Strong Policy

A teen leading climate strikes in Canada says the Liberals’ motion is merely a ‘publicity stunt.’
Canada is poised to vote this week on whether to declare a “climate emergency.”
Photo via The Canadian Press

Canada is poised to vote this week on whether to declare a “climate emergency.” But critics say the motion is essentially toothless as Canada’s current climate change response falls short of its Paris Agreement commitments, and the declaration comes with no new policy attached.

Canada’s parliament has been debating a motion introduced on May 13 by Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna to declare that climate change is “a real and urgent crisis, driven by human activity.”


Her motion says Canadians are already feeling the impacts of climate change, including flooding, wildfires, heatwaves and other extreme events “which are projected to intensify in the future,” and requires that Canada make “deeper reductions” in line with the Paris Agreement.

The declaration is intended as a signal to Canadians and the rest of the world that the government is taking the issue seriously. If it passes, Canada would be the third country in the world to declare a climate emergency, following the U.K. and Ireland earlier this month.

In Canada, teenagers have staged school strikes every Friday demanding Canada declare a climate emergency. Rebecca Hamilton, 16, who led school strikes in Vancouver, said, “formally acknowledging that we are in a crisis is important, but means nothing unless specific and concrete action is taken.”

“The future of my generation cannot be used as a bargaining chip or a publicity stunt,” Hamilton said. “This is the greatest challenge that our civilization has ever faced. It’s time to acknowledge the state of emergency we are in, but more importantly, it’s time to do something about it.”

Cameron Fenton, Canada spokesperson for, an international advocacy group with the goal of ending the climate crisis, said there’s a risk that the term “climate emergency” will become meaningless over time if there’s no new action attached to the declaration. Justin Trudeau’s government has been “saying the right thing on climate change, but failing to act” since 2015, he said.


“We deliberately did not attach any policy implications to ensure this debate best represented the non-partisan nature of the climate emergency,” McKenna’s deputy director of communications Caroline Thériault said. “There is no reason why every single politician in the House of Commons would not be able to vote in favour of this motion.”

In December 2015, Canada’s newly-elected Liberal government met with 194 other countries in Paris and agreed to reduce emissions to 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, an unambitious goal.

The Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis by three research organizations that tracks 32 countries responsible for 80 percent of global emissions, found that as of November 30, 2018, Canada’s policies to fight climate change were “highly insufficient.”

Last year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned the world that we only have 12 years to cut our emissions in half to keep warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid more dramatic fires, heat waves, droughts, floods.

A large part of Canada’s plan to reduce emissions rests on a national carbon pricing scheme that puts a price on fuel for individuals and industry. Economists say Canada’s price on carbon, starting at $20 per tonne in 2019 and increasing to $50 a tonne by 2022, is not high enough to meet Canada’s Paris commitments. It would need to be around $200 per tonne to get results.


The construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which would carry triple the amount of oil from Alberta to the B.C. coast where it can be sold internationally, will also increase emissions. One economist at Simon Fraser University estimated the vast majority of emissions from the pipeline, 89 percent, would be downstream (the emissions produced when the oil is used by customers outside of Canada), totalling 86.1 megatonnes of carbon each year. The government only expects the carbon tax to reduce emissions by 80 to 90 megatonnes over three years, meaning the pipeline will cancel out the carbon tax by a lot.

And according to Environmental Defence, an advocacy organization working against climate change, Canada’s fossil fuel subsidies are “the elephant in the room,” totalling $3.3 billion each year, which amounts to paying polluters $19 per tonne to pollute.

On May 13, the same day McKenna put forward her motion, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh introduced a similar motion calling for Canada to declare a climate emergency, but with the additional demands that Canada increase the “ambition” of its climate goals to avoid more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, cancel the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, and immediately stop federal fossil fuel subsidies.

Responding to Singh, McKenna said immediately eliminating fossil fuel subsidies is problematic. “Let’s think about the impact of that,” she told reporters on May 15. “You have Inuit in our north or people who live in northern communities, they’re still relying on diesel and we give them incentives, because life has to be affordable. If we immediately remove those subsidies it would be very expensive.”


An NDP spokesperson said Singh was calling for an end to subsidies to producers, not communities.

McKenna’s team said they know they need to do more, and they’re adding new initiatives.

“Canada’s climate plan has over 50 measures to cut pollution from buildings, transportation, industry and throughout our economy, and we continue to take new actions to fight climate change,” Thériault said. “We know we need to do more, and will continue to increase our ambition as the measures of our plan are implemented. More urgent action is required.”

According to government numbers, industry is the biggest emitter, responsible for 40 percent of Canada’s total emissions. The government says it’s investing in clean tech, improving energy efficiency, implementing a Clean Fuel Standard, and putting a price on emissions under the carbon pricing plan.

Transportation emissions make up 25 percent of our total emissions. On Tuesday, Canada announced it is endorsing a campaign called “Drive to Zero,” a strategic initiative designed to boost production of low and zero emissions trucks and buses.

The Liberal government is also phasing out coal-fired power plants.

The Conservatives have not yet introduced a plan to fight climate change. The NDP has released plans to fight climate change, and is expected to unveil their full plan Friday.

Fenton is encouraging Canadians to call for a Green New Deal, like the one proposed by New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the U.S.

“The unfortunate reality is that acting on a climate emergency is going to require standing up to Big Oil, keeping fossil fuels in the ground and showing a degree of political courage that our government hasn't been able or willing to muster,” Fenton said. Editor's note: This story has been updated with comment from the NDP.