Supreme Court Ruling Signals Start To A Canada-Wide Effort On Climate Change

On March 25th, Canada’s Supreme Court handed out a big win for the climate by declaring the federal government’s proposed carbon price constitutional. The proposed carbon price, the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act, was implemented in 2019 as a central component of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s climate plan. With this law, the federal government exercises its right to impose a carbon tax on Canada’s provinces. The carbon tax was met with fierce resistance from Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, who claimed the law was a violation of their jurisdictional sovereignty. 

The argument of the opposing provinces rested on the “peace, order, and good government” clause in the Canadian constitution. This clause states that laws will fall under the jurisdiction of the provinces unless there is a situation of national concern. The majority opinion of the Supreme Court ruling was that climate change was a national concern, one that “no one province, territory, or country can address […] on its own.” However, the Supreme Court also noted that the carbon pricing system would only apply in cases where provinces or territories do not have their own systems in place that are robust enough to reduce emissions. 

This decision ends a drawn-out legal challenge that prevented meaningful action being taken towards climate change mitigation. This federal pricing plan essentially guarantees country-wide cooperation―a critical condition to meeting the 2050 net-zero goal. With no more arenas to fight in, the parties against the carbon pricing system must come together and contribute to the Canadian effort. Saskatchewan is heading in this direction, as its premier has suggested the province will implement its own carbon pricing system. As of yet, neither details of the plan nor a timeline for submission have been released.

According to the Pembina Institute, “a well-designed carbon pricing system is an indispensable part of any cost-efficient and effective climate strategy.” Canada’s plan has also received support from the American Petroleum Institute―an endorsement that signals a monumental shift in a group that has long fought against climate action. This shift can also be seen in traditionally fossil-fuel based companies like ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron, whose leaders recently expressed support for a carbon pricing plan on a call with the White House

Unfortunately, this same commitment is not generally reflected in Canada’s own conservative movement. Canadian conservatives have long focused their efforts on fighting liberal-proposed climate policies, such as the Ontario cap-and-trade policy that was dismantled when Doug Ford became the province’s premier. Ontario has yet to put in place an effective replacement for the cap-and-trade policy. Moreover, the province has reversed course on greening the electricity grid. Similar promises have being made by the federal conservative party to scrap the carbon pricing plan. This lack of action, coupled with the recent federal party vote against a resolution that acknowledges climate change, risks painting the Canadian conservative movement as climate change deniers. 

To avoid being cast in this light, the Conservative Party needs to offer a credible alternative to the climate policies it consistently attacks. Given that approximately two-thirds of potential conservative voters surveyed by Clean Prosperity in 2020 did not agree with using tax dollars to fight the carbon tax, this vehement opposition strategy will only hurt the federal Conservative Party in the next election. Seemingly aware of the harm that an anti-climate change image can do to his party, leader Erin O’Toole has announced that a conservative climate plan is in the making. While the reveal date for this plan is ambiguously set to be “before the next election,” this climate plan needs to be equally, if not more, ambitious than the liberal climate plan to keep the country on track to a net-zero 2050. 

Alexandra Konn