As panic over COVID-19 permeates media outlets, hopeful and pessimistic voices alike have pointed to the potential effects this crisis will have on climate change. Protecting the environment and building a more sustainable economy is a key feature of the Liberal platform, however, the removal of two weeks of house sittings should lead Canadians to expect less new legislation or completed campaign promises. 

After having adjourned on March 13th until April 20th, the 42nd Session of Parliament reconvened on March 18th for one final stimulus package valued at $82 billion. On March 13th, parliament also passed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) among other bills focused on providing a financial stimulus to the economy and allowing the governor-general to continue signing off on routine public service expenses.

Before COVID-19 became a pandemic, four private members bills charged forward to address climate change concerns. Will the bills survive the pandemic, or will they die on the order of paper?

Climate Change and COVID-19: The Emergencies that Will Define the Decade?

COVID-19 is not the only emergency facing humanity: climate emergencies have been declared in 1,468 jurisdictions spanning 28 countries. Despite this, nowhere near the same level of attention has been devoted to the climate emergency as COVID-19. 24-hour news stations like CBC are offering round-the-clock COVID-19 updates. By contrast, an analysis of American broadcast news outlets report that only 0.7 per cent of nightly news and morning show air time was devoted to the climate emergency.

Many have highlighted the reduction of air pollution in regions with lockdowns. In China, it is estimated that CO2 emissions during the quarantine fell by a quarter. The need to reduce air pollution is heightened during the spread of COVID-19, which attacks the lungs, as lung irritants worsen symptoms.

Realists have also pointed out that pandemic-related cancellations will reduce international cooperation over the coming months, thereby slowing down progress on reducing emissions. At the most basic level, it is impossible to predict whether individuals will continue to reduce their driving and consumption once social distancing policies are lifted. 

Perhaps most concerning is the concept of ‘revenge pollution’ which says that to recover from recessions inflicted by COVID-19, governments will stimulate the economy in such a way that may increase emissions. This concern is even greater in Canada, where fears of a recession inflicted by COVID-19 come at the same time as a crash in world oil prices. It remains to be seen whether the Liberals will work to support the Western provinces’ oil sector or direct funding towards climate-friendly alternatives at the risk of alienating Conservative voters.

Private Members Only: Bills to Address Climate Change

Bloc MP Kristina Michaud moved Bill C-215 on February 24th. The goal of this bill is to have a new minister appointed to oversee the development of a plan for Canada to reach the 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. This is Michaud’s first bill as the 26-year-old was elected for the first time in the 2019 election.

Another newly-elected woman, NDP MP Leah Gazan, moved Bill C-232. The bill would set a one-year deadline for the government to develop a climate emergency plan that also complies with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)’s requirement for signatories to incorporate Indigenous knowledge and governance systems into climate emergency plans.

Despite signing the Paris Agreement, Trudeau’s government has failed to materialize an action plan in the past four years. On this issue, the minority government will face pull from the left-wing pro-Paris parties like the NDP, Bloc, and Greens and the pro-oil Conservatives who are concentrated in Canada’s most disgruntled region.

In deciding whether to support either bill, the Liberals will have to consider whether they plan to attract Conservative voters or not in the next election.

Bill S-215, moved by former conservationist PEI Senator Diane Griffin, modifies “the definitions of eligible farming machinery and qualifying farming fuel” in the greenhouse gas pollution pricing act.

Bill C-221 moved by Conservative MP Shannon Stubbs would create a tax exemption for small and medium enterprises that close oil and gas wells in the effort to attract investors and help companies maintain closed wells. By contrast to C-215 and C-232, S-215 and C-221 would likely draw support from rural voters, especially in the central and western provinces. As such, to help solve their crisis of popularity in Alberta and Manitoba, the Liberals may choose to support these bills. 

Flattening the Curve and Consumption

With many retail stores closing their storefronts due to COVID-19, more and more employees working from home, and people rediscovering how to simply be alone, it may be an opportune moment to try out different forms of economic measurement.

At the end of the pandemic, the government will be able to choose which industries to give extra funding or tax breaks and the option to allow unsustainable industries to fail will be more real than ever.

Furthermore, with expanded social assistance in many countries, depending on the length and effect of the crisis it may become more practical to collapse different social assistance programs into a single universal basic income. The Liberals’ decision, will, as with any political decisions, be driven by voter sentiment.

Edited by Eyitayo Kunle-Oladosu.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association. 

Image by Saffron Blaze via Wikimedia Commons.