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Can the hard lessons of COVID-19 point to effective Canadian policies on climate change?

20 Aug 2020 9:53 AM | Anonymous

Can the energy lessons of the COVID-19 lockdown guide Canada’s climate change actions for workplaces and transportation? Photo by Chris LeBoutillier from Pexels.com

Five years after signing the Paris Agreement and pledging to reduce GHG emissions by 30 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030, Canada so far gets a failing grade. 

Instead of trending down 30 per cent, emissions in 2030 are likely to reach little more than half this target. This assessment is supported by the most recent biennial report as well as reports from Climate Transparency and the UN.  

Although effects of the federal government’s Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change may not have been accounted for, climate transparency, the UN and Canadian academics say action needs to be taken to address the shortfall now. 

Under the Paris Agreement, Canada has only 10 years left to bolster efforts and re-strategize. Developing new policies to lessen what the UN terms a “catastrophic” shortfall is going to be a major challenge. But one factor could strengthen efforts in this area: COVID-19. Modelling and strategic planning associated with the most recent reports were done well in advance of the pandemic.

What happens if we incorporate lessons we’re learning from the pandemic to strengthen our policies? Is progress so far a prophecy predicting failure, as some experts believe, or are there opportunities to reduce the magnitude of our failure?

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be more than a global health crisis. It has had major implications on food security, economics and – owing to full and partial lockdowns to stop the spread – human energy consumption. 

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), countries in full lockdown experienced an average of 25 per cent drop in energy demand per week. Their scenario, which quantifies energy impact due to the lockdown, predicts a global eight per cent decline in CO2 emissions. This is double the combined total of all previous reductions since the end of World War II, indicating the colossal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

It is unlikely such seismic environmental gains from a reduced workforce can or should continue indefinitely but lessons learned so far can be transformative. 

First, COVID-19 has re-defined work, demonstrating that entire companies can work from home without any loss in productivity. The CEOs of TwitterShopify, and Square, for example, announced that workers can continue to work from home even after the lockdown is lifted. Recently, Jean-Yves Duclos, president of Canada’s Treasury Board, announced that working remotely has not had a negative impact upon the work of the Public Service and could be the new normal. For a sector with over 220,000 employees, this is significant. 

Before the pandemic, the federal government developed a national strategy for GHG emissions. It includes retrofitting of large buildings with carbon-intensive heating infrastructure to reduce emissions, increasing incentives for electric cars, and the development of greener transit options in Canada’s largest cities. These strategies have gained new relevance in light of the lessons learned from the pandemic. 

Millions of Canadians can now work from home which has sparked speculation that many large buildings typically used for offices may become obsolete. This raises some crucial questions. How does increasing the home-based workforce across Canada affect GHG emissions from cars? How does working from home affect office buildings with GHG-intensive heating systems?  What changes are expected if 20, 40 or 50 per cent of Canadian workers are home-based?

This information in a standard form, for example, megatonnes of CO2 equivalent, could inform policies to encourage individuals and large companies, perhaps through tax credits, to reduce their transportation-related GHG emissions by working from home. This knowledge could also be rapidly incorporated into strategies for investment and development of sustainable approaches to restarting the economy. 

Global experts agree: individual action alone does not result in the drastic reduction in emissions needed. Similarly, reducing transport and the heating of buildings alone will not ensure Canada’s Paris Agreement targets are met. But it is one step in the right direction.

Among G20 countries, Canada has four times the average GHG emission from transportation and twice the average emissions from buildings. Progress in these areas will certainly require pushing the boundaries of our long-held perceptions of work. 

But the pandemic has revealed what is possible. Now is the time to reform thinking and policy to match Canada’s goals and stated commitment to environmental stewardship. To do otherwise is to risk not only failure but to disregard our future.

By: Jasmine Hamilton

Jasmine Hamilton writes about health, public policy, faith, and everything in between. She earned a Ph.D. in Pathology from the University of British Columbia and a Certificate in Global Health Governance and Policy from Duke University’s Sandford School of Public Policy. She enjoys the outdoors and leads a book club in her spare time.


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