Canada's Leadership at the 2018 G7 Environment Ministers' Meeting in Halifax
Brittaney Warren, G7 Research Group
September 21, 2018
On September 20, 2018, G7 environment ministers, under Canada's G7 presidency, released a chair's summary that outlines the results of their meeting from the day before, in lieu of a pre-negotiated communiqué.
The chair's summary contained 14 politically binding, future-oriented commitments. Not all of these, however, were collective in a way that bound all members as some bound only "several" or "many" of the ministers. Of the six commitments that all the ministers agreed to, two were on climate change, three were on the circular economy and one was on international cooperation (found under the sub-section on adaptation and conserving nature). Of the eight commitments that only a subset of ministers agreed to, seven were on climate change and one was on biodiversity. This suggests that climate change is the most divisive environmental issue within the G7 club, with the United States under Donald Trump implicated as the dividing factor.
Indeed, Trump's most recent efforts to ease restrictions on methane emissions is the latest in a string of regulatory rollbacks across a spectrum of environmental issues since he took office. Trump has become a notorious climate-denying figure, starting with his decision in June 2017 to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. This drew criticism from his peers who left him isolated on climate change at the G20 summit a few months later in Hamburg and then again at the G7 summit in Charlevoix in June 2018. Thus, at Halifax, Canada's Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Catherine McKenna, faced the challenge of finding common ground between the United States and the rest of the G7 environment ministers. Japan's reluctance to sign onto the G7 Oceans Plastics Charter at the G7 Charlevoix Summit along with the United States also posed a challenge at the September 20 Halifax meeting where cleaning up and preventing plastics pollution were the focus.
The result of this division has so far resulted in a weaker chair's summary relative to previous environment ministers' meetings (EMMs). At the June 2017 EMM in Bologna, Italy, ministers made 49 commitments and at the May 2016 EMM in Toyama, Japan, ministers made 66 commitments. No EMMs were held between 2009 and 2015.
However, more may not mean better: the ambition of the commitments matters too. Do the commitments merely iterate previous statements or was progress made on them? For example, at the leaders' level, G7 members through their membership in the G20 have committed to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies at every summit since 2009. But with no plan of how to achieve this and only a reiteration of the same phrase from summit to summit, compliance with this G20 commitment has steadily declined over time. G7 environment ministers at the 2017 Bologna meeting did try to make progress on fossil fuel subsidies, making three new commitments that were more than a reiteration: to participate in the G20 voluntary peer review process, to explore approaches to align fiscal systems to achieve environmental goals, and to achieve the phase out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies by 2025. By doing so, they set a new deadline, as the old "medium-term" one had long passed.
At the 2018 EMM, fossil fuel subsidies and energy-related issues will be left up to the energy ministers' meeting on September 21. G7 environment ministers stuck to statements of support for the Paris Agreement on climate change, "emphasized" climate resilience and adaptation, and "encouraged" dialogue and partnerships on resource efficiency. "Most" — not all — ministers agreed to the Paris Agreement commitments, "many" ministers favoured economic opportunities and nature-based solutions alongside emissions reductions strategies, "several" ministers highlighted the need for expanded disaster risk insurance and "several" ministers agreed to "intensify efforts to reverse biodiversity loss." Which ministers from which countries agreed to which commitment is anyone's best guess.
Although little consensus was achieved at the environment ministers' gathering and no collectively agreed G7 communiqués or announcements were made by the environment ministers there, Canada as host announced several initiatives.
McKenna's environment ministry announced a zero waste strategy for government events and operations, including green public procurement, to reduce the amount of plastic waste generated by government by 75% by 2030. It announced a $12 million investment in a plastics innovation fund to encourage Canadians to submit ideas on better product design for plastics, construction, textiles and other consumer products. It launched a Canadian circular economy leadership partnership with the World Economic Forum to promote companies that are implementing a zero waste vision and a $65 million investment through the World Bank to support the development of an international fund to stop plastic pollution and improve waste management in developing countries. McKenna also highlighted Canada's most recent efforts to address plastics pollution, including the recent banning of microbeads, public engagement through the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup initiative, consultations with Canadians on a national zero waste strategy, education programs in schools, and the addition of several non-G7 countries, multinational corporations and non-governmental organizations to the Plastics Charter. Japan and the United States, however, were still not convinced of the value of the charter.
Jonathan Wilkinson, minister of fisheries, oceans and the Coast Guard, also made several financial commitments on behalf of Canada: $5.6 million was announced to support the expansion of the Argo Ocean Array, which collects data on the ocean environment. This is in line with the G7 leaders' mandate from Charlevoix to advance earth observation technologies, but stops short of advancing such technologies for climate resilience. However, Canada also announced it will provide $60 million to support disaster response in small island developing states. Wilkinson also announced $11.6 million in funding to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU), and highlighted ghost fishing gear as a target of the $12 million plastics innovation fund.
By midday on September 21, Canada's Minister of Natural Resources, Amarjeet Sohi, representing the energy file of the G7 Halifax meeting, had made an announcement of $29.8 million to develop and deploy a tidal energy project on the east coast of Canada.
Sohi also reiterated Canada's commitment to the $7.4 billion fossil fuel project in Alberta stating "the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion is an investment in Canada's future." In response to the Supreme Court of Canada's decision that denied the issuance of a certificate that would allow the twinning of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain Pipeline to proceed, Sohi announced that Canada will address both of the reasons that the court found reason to halt the project. On the first, which found Canada did not properly fulfil its duty to consult Indigenous peoples, Sohi announced that the National Energy Board (NEB) "will provide participant funding so that the views of Indigenous groups are well represented in the Board's consideration of marine issues." On the second, namely the omission to include the impact of tanker traffic in the scope of the environmental assessment for the project, Sohi announced that Canada has instructed the NEB to reconsider its recommendations and that Canada will appoint a marine technical advisor to the board. The three members of the NEB will have 22 days to complete its reassessment.
Although Canada showed leadership by committing funds to find solutions to plastics pollution, to improve disaster response, to expand ocean data collection, to address IUU and to develop renewable energy, it also reiterated its commitment to develop Canada's fossil fuel economy. A report by the International Institute of Sustainable Development, released ahead of the G7 Halifax meeting, found that "Canada is the largest provider of government support for oil and gas production per unit of [gross domestic product] of all G7 countries." It continued by saying that "with the recent purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline, it is likely that the quantifiable amounts of federal subsidies just became even larger."
Thus, although Canada's environment minister led on plastics and Canada's minister of fisheries and oceans led on IUU and disaster response, Canada's minister of energy confronted the constraints of leading on energy from a country that was built on the extraction of its energy resources and one that must transition quickly to a clean energy system in order to meet its Paris Agreement obligations. Canada's climate change challenges thus remain.
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Brittaney Warren is Director of Compliance and lead researcher on climate change and the environment for the G7 Research Group, the G20 Research Group and the BRICS Research Group, based at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Trinity College at the University of Toronto. She has worked in Spain and in Peru where she conducted field research on a sustainable development project with women living in extreme poverty. She has published on the effective use of accountability measures in summit commitments and on the G7 and G20's compliance and governance of climate change and digitalization. Follow her at @brittaneywarren.
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