“I don’t have a secret agenda as environment minister,” he told reporters last week. But he’s softened his public opposition to pipelines now that he represents a government that spent C$4.5 billion on the Trans Mountain pipeline, much to the derision of environmentalists, in a bid to ensure the construction of its proposed expansion.
The move to the green portfolio is, on face value, a better fit for the well-known environmentalist who has never owned a car. Guilbeault’s previous job as heritage minister was marred by poor communication that bungled the government’s controversial internet regulation bill.
He arrives at COP26 barely a week into his new job. After Trudeau leaves on Tuesday, it will be on Guilbeault to lead the Canadian delegation through to the end of the two-week conference.
Because the top priorities at COP26 are mostly finance related — securing the $100 billion in climate finance for developing countries and establishing global carbon market rules — Guilbeault will have more cards to play once he returns from Glasgow.
As environment minister, he’ll have a say in the fates of major energy projects. The responsibility makes him a key player in a country that boasts the third-largest oil reserves in the world — a majority of which are in Alberta.
Hours after Guilbeault was sworn in, United Conservative Party Alberta Premier Jason Kenney warned that a “radical agenda would lead to mass unemployment.” In a rare display of cross-party unity, the province’s former premier, NDP Leader Rachel Notley agreed.
“I share some of the concerns about some of the historical positions taken by [Guilbeault] in the past, some of his anti-pipeline commentary, that is certainly troubling,” she said.
In Canada, a demarcation of power gives the federal government authority regulating pollution and environmental standards, but the provinces have constitutional powers over production in sectors such as oil and gas. Current forecasts project Canadian oil and gas production will continue increasing until 2040, an unnerving statistic for environmental groups raising the alarm over the climate crisis.
Trudeau has repeatedly maintained Canada is doing its part. Canada increased its climate target under the Paris Agreement earlier this year, boosting a pledge to cut emissions from 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 to 40-45 percent. The government has also promised to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
“We will ensure through legislation and regulation — something we will need to develop — that emissions from oil and gas in Canada are capped at current levels and diminish over time,” Guilbeault said a day after he was sworn in to his new portfolio.
An old hand in a new portfolio
Guilbeault makes his international debut as environment minister in Glasgow, but he’s no stranger to the U.N. conference. He attended his first in 1995 as a youth delegate; this will be his 19th COP.
During 30 years of advocacy, he founded the environmental advocacy group Équiterre in 1993 and later spent a decade at Greenpeace.
He jumped into federal politics in 2019, a star Liberal candidate in the downtown Montreal riding of Laurier-Sainte-Marie. He called the move a “logical conclusion” after decades of tackling climate change outside of government. He’d flirted with politics for years, having been billed as a keynote speaker at the Liberal Party’s biennial convention in Winnipeg in 2016.
Guilbeault was immediately given a seat at the Cabinet table, where he’s gained a reputation for building bridges on the environmental file.
Trudeau’s government has frequently used Guilbeault’s environmental credibility despite it not being his official portfolio until recently. Even as heritage minister, he made frequent appearances at pre-election funding announcements related to electric vehicles and responding to questions in the House of Commons during debates related to the environment.
Guilbeault is Trudeau’s third environment minister in six years. Former cabinet minister Catherine McKenna was given the role in 2015 before Jonathan Wilkinson replaced her in 2019. McKenna told POLITICO that Wilkinson was “lower key” as environment minister.
Trudeau’s Cabinet overhaul seemed to acknowledge that issue with the decision to move Wilkinson, the incumbent environment minister, to natural resources. The two departments have sometimes behaved like oil and water, publishing incompatible climate-related reports.
Early signs suggest the two departments are looking to address the problem by moving in lockstep.
Guilbeault and Wilkinson issued a joint letter Monday to a government-appointed advisory body formally asking for recommendations and advice to bring the Liberals’ promise to cap and cut oil and gas emissions into fruition.
Guilbeault’s appointment is a message Canada is returning to a more hardline approach to climate policy. He inherits a department with considerable sway over the approval or rejection of major projects. This gives him a say on critical minerals projects, an area the Biden administration identified as a priority for renewing Canada-U.S. bilateral relations.
The U.S. is reliant on China for large capacity lithium-ion batteries, essential for electric vehicles. To alleviate that trade reliance, the Biden administration has prioritized the development of a domestic lithium battery manufacturing industry.
Lithium is one of 31 critical minerals that can be mined in Canada. It will be on Guilbeault to weigh the environmental costs of tailings and mine waste against economic and energy transition benefits of scaling domestic battery development and production for electric vehicles.
Even in a race against time, it can take years to approve a major project in Canada. The energy industry has long raised concerns about uncertain policy signals that can repel investments. It’s why the Trudeau government ended up buying the Trans Mountain pipeline, a project Guilbeault’s organization Équiterre had called “deplorable” because it “seriously” undermines Canada’s ability to reach its Paris targets. Guilbeault has called it a “point of disagreement” he has with the government.
It doesn’t help that there is simmering hostility between federal and provincial governments that doesn’t exactly scream confidence to private sector investors.
“If you look at the history of how we have developed this country over the course of the last century, most of the infrastructure within resource or resource economies has been funded from out of country capital sources,” ARC Energy Research Institute Deputy Director Peter Tertzakian said at the Coalition for a Better Future conference last week.
“If we’re just arguing and yelling and screaming at each other across provincial boundaries, as one of many issues, who’s going to come and invest here? I wouldn’t.”
Intergovernmental tensions are likely to continue with provincial elections in Ontario and Alberta in the next two years, two provinces led by incumbent Conservative premiers.
New climate team at COP26
Both Guilbeault and Wilkinson are with the prime minister at COP26. But the new environment minister advised reporters before his U.K.-bound flight not to anticipate new policy or regulatory details at the summit. He believes Canada, and the world, needs to do more to slow down quickly rising global temperatures.
COP26’s success hinges on the willingness of countries to “keep 1.5 alive” — the goal of limiting warming global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius which is considered a threshold target that might prevent catastrophic warming that could fuel extreme weather events.
Guilbeault said Friday that he’s “cautiously optimistic,” but hedged that face time only does so much. “It’s not always enough to show up,” he said.
Beyond 2030 targets, Canada is going to need more than talking points. The most difficult task, perhaps, will be figuring out how key departments including environment, natural resources and transport can collaborate to draft climate-related regulations and policies.
Monica Gattinger, director of the University of Ottawa’s Institute for Science, Society and Policy, says it would be self-sabotage for Canada to continue to develop energy and climate policy in silos.
“These folks aren’t necessarily in the same rooms together,” she told the Coalition for a Better Future conference. “That’s a huge problem.”