Stephen Harper’s climate change timeline

Parks Canada says the Athabasca Glacier, a major source of water to communities and industry in Western North America, has been shrinking for 125 years and "may almost disappear within three generations." Strong scientific evidence points to human activity as the cause of climate change, says the federal agency.

Parks Canada says the Athabasca Glacier, a major source of water to communities and industry in Western North America, has been shrinking for 125 years and “may almost disappear within three generations.” Strong scientific evidence points to human activity as the cause of climate change, says the federal agency.


Canada is being challenged about its own domestic record in addressing the heat-trapping pollution that contributes to global warming.

Here’s a historical timeline of some of the major climate change policies, statements and related decisions made by Canada since 2006 when Prime Minister Stephen Harper was first elected to form a government.

From a pledge to introduce a carbon tax in 2007 to internal debates about climate change science, this timeline covers the promises and the action by the Canadian government in recent years.

February 2006:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is sworn in after his Conservative Party wins a general election with a minority of seats in the Canadian House of Commons. The election ends a 13-year-old government led by the Liberal Party of Canada.

Harper’s Conservatives mainly focused on accountability and tax cuts during the campaign. They also criticized Canada’s participation in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, pledging to introduce a “made-in-Canada” solution to promote a healthy environment.

The newly-elected government cancels billions of dollars in federal spending to address climate change and promote energy efficiency. They also cancel work underway within Environment Canada to regulate greenhouse gases from large industrial facilities, describing the country’s legally-binding Kyoto target as unrealistic.

Harper and members of his cabinet note that the previous Liberal administration had promised to take action on climate change, but didn’t do anything to stop the rise in industrial greenhouse gas emissions that put Canada’s Kyoto target out of reach.

May 2006:

The Globe and Mail reports on leaked documents from international climate talks in Bonn, Germany, that reveal the Harper government has instructed its negotiators to oppose “stringent targets” for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The newspaper reports that the instructions tell negotiators to instead favour a voluntary approach to addressing climate-warming pollution.

Environmental groups accuse the government of sabotaging the talks. It’s the first of many conferences over the next decade in which critics describe Canada as the worst and least helpful party at the negotiating table on climate change issues.

September 2006:

Environment Minister Rona Ambrose pledges to introduce a new law that would use the federal government’s constitutional authority to require all industrial sectors to reduce pollution. Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers president Pierre Alvarez says that his industry is prepared to accept targets as long as other sectors faced the same regulations.

The opposition, which forms a majority in the House of Commons, would later reject her proposed legislation as inadequate. The opposition parties would then attempt to rewrite the bill, but the new version was abandoned by the Conservative government that claimed it would harm the Canadian economy.

March 2007:

Preserving the environment is one of the top themes of Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s federal budget. The plan includes $4.5 billion in spending “to clean our air and water, reduce greenhouse gases and combat climate change, as well as protect our natural environment.” The budget also restores funding to some measures that were scrapped, one year earlier, by the government, reintroducing them with new names.

April 2007:

Environment Minister John Baird unveils new targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution across the Canadian economy. The targets set new goals that are aggressive, but weaker than Canada’s existing commitments, under the Kyoto Protocol. Baird says that the new targets will come into force as early as 2010 for some sectors at an estimated cost of about $8 billion to the Canadian economy.

The Conservative plan proposes to give companies the possibility of meeting their targets by paying a $15 carbon tax per tonne of emissions that would go into a fund supporting the development of new technologies.

Baird’s new “Turning the Corner” plan also estimates the targets will also result in health benefits worth about $6 billion due to a reduction in air pollution and related respiratory illnesses.

“This is a mammoth undertaking,” Baird tells a news conference in Toronto. “It doesn’t end today. Global warming, climate change is one of the biggest ecological threats the environment has ever faced, and it’s going to require work every day, every week, every month and every year.”

Despite extensive consultations with all major industrial sectors over the previous year, Baird explains that more negotiations with industry would likely follow before introducing any draft regulations.

June 2007:

Speaking to an audience in Germany, Prime Minister Stephen Harper describes climate change as “perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity today.” He also notes that Canada was a small contributor to global warming since it was responsible for two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“But we owe it to future generations to do whatever we can to address this world problem,” Harper says. “And Canadians, blessed as we are, should make a substantial contribution to confronting this challenge.”

He also says in his speech that his government has already introduced mandatory emissions reductions targets for large emitters that would result in “absolute reductions in emissions levels by at least 2012 and as early as 2010.”

October 2008:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative party is re-elected as a minority government in a general election, following a campaign in which the party pledged to introduce a cap and trade system as part of its climate change policies. The system would set targets to cap pollution from industry and then allow facilities to meet targets either by reducing emissions or by purchasing credits. The credits could be sold provided that they have certified a reduction in emissions beyond business as usual.

Harper names Jim Prentice as his third environment minister after winning the election.

The global financial crisis and lobbying from industry warning about economic impacts would later derail legislation in the U.S. to introduce a cap and trade system.

December 2009:

An international climate change summit in Copenhagen, Denmark collapses without a binding agreement.

Stephen Harper signs a new voluntary climate change accord spear-headed by U.S. President Barack Obama. Harper weakens Canada’s previous target set under Baird’s Turning the Corner proposal, but matches a target set by the Obama administration.

February 2010:

Jim Prentice criticizes the Quebec government for planning its own aggressive fuel economy tailpipe standards for cars, describing the province’s approach as a “folly.”

October 2010:

The Harper government adopts new fuel economy rules, based largely on the Quebec and California model, matching regulations introduced by the Obama administration to reduce tailpipe pollution from new cars. Environment Canada estimates the new regulations will save the equivalent of 28 billion litres of fuel between 2011 and 2016. Jim Prentice says higher costs of purchasing cars would be offset by savings in fuel consumption and that the regulations would also encourage more electric cars on Canadian roads.

November 2010:

Prentice resigns from federal politics to accept a job as a vice-president of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and is temporarily replaced as environment minister by John Baird.

December 2010:

John Baird hails a series of agreements reached at an international climate change summit in Cancun, Mexico as the “first step” toward a binding global deal to ensure greenhouse gases peak within a decade and then start to decline. But he also warns that it would be mathematically impossible to stabilize emissions in the atmosphere without getting the biggest polluters, China, India and the United States, to take on firm commitments.

“I hope that coming out of Cancun that people, other countries will reflect,” Baird says. “Whatever we’ve been trying for the last 13 years hasn’t worked. Emissions are way up since 1997. If we want to stabilize them by 2015 or 2020, we’re going to have to get the big players involved.”

January 2011:

Peter Kent becomes Stephen Harper’s fourth environment minister and begins his new role by praising Canadian oil as an “ethical” fuel.

February 2011:

The Harper government confirms that it is no longer pursuing a cap and trade regime, but aiming to introduce new mandatory rules and standards for industrial pollution.

Peter Kent says in an interview that the government had a “target” of introducing all of its proposed greenhouse gas regulations by the end of 2011.

May 2011:

Following a general election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are re-elected, this time forming a majority in the House of Commons.

September 2011:

Peter Kent says the spring federal election has delayed work on the oil and gas regulations and that they wouldn’t be introduced in 2011.

Fall 2011:

Environment Canada creates a new group to work on the oil and gas regulations. It includes representatives from the Alberta government, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and three oil companies – Canadian Natural Resources Limited, Cenovus and Suncor. The group meets roughly once every four weeks.

December 2011:

Peter Kent announces that Canada is withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol.

Across the government, officials are working on plans behind the scenes to reduce federal oversight of industrial activities and accelerate energy and resource development.

These plans follow a decision by President Obama to delay approval of the Keystone XL pipeline expansion project, that would allow for more oilsands exports from Alberta to the United States.

The new federal policies and laws would also respond to many detailed requests from oil, gas and pipeline lobbyists.

In response to questions about the Kyoto withdrawal in the House of Commons, Stephen Harper says: “I have said many times that climate change is a great problem for the world.”

March 2012:

The Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Research is forced to shut its doors after repeated requests for renewed funding fall on deaf ears. The foundation had offered about $120 million in university grants for climate and weather-related research over about 10 years. The total is above the $110 million multi-year grant it received from the government.

The foundation would later rebrand itself as the Canadian Climate Forum, relying on private donors to fund its work.

A labour union representing federal scientists, the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, would also estimate that the Canadian government was in the middle of a three-year purge, cutting nearly $3 billion in spending and up to 5,000 jobs from its science-based departments, including many scientific research positions and programs in charge of monitoring air, water, and wildlife.

A large portion of the cuts are introduced in Jim Flaherty’s March 2012 budget, which includes $8 million in new spending to help the Canada Revenue Agency launch more audits and investigations of environmental groups. The budget also cancels the $5 million in annual funding for the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, an advisory panel which has produced a series of reports that warn the government’s environmental policies are putting Canada’s national economy at risk.

Peter Kent suggests the government no longer needs the round table since similar research is available on the Internet which didn’t exist when the panel was created by the Mulroney government, 25 years earlier.

One of the other victims of federal cuts is the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Lab – also known as PEARL – a scientific observatory station near Eureka in the high Arctic that loses about a third of its federal funding and is no longer able to remain fully operational throughout the entire year.

The government instead opts to spend millions of dollars to build a new research station that is more than 1,000 kilometres to the southwest.

April 2012:

The Harper government introduces a 400-page document in Parliament that proposes to scrap major Canadian environmental laws and replace them with new legislation.

After concluding his term as president of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy a few months later, David McLaughlin, also a former chief of staff to both Brian Mulroney and Jim Flaherty, expressed concerns about what was happening to the public debate on energy issues.

May 2012:

At international negotiations, Guy Saint-Jacques, then the former chief federal climate change negotiator and ambassador, says that the Canadian government is working towards draft regulations for 2013” in the oil and gas sector.

“Once we have finalized the oil and gas regulations, we will have covered some 60 per cent of our emissions,” Saint-Jacques told his international counterparts.

June 2012:

A series of newly-released letters reveals that Peter Kent has been challenged by many of his caucus colleagues, including the prime minister, to answer questions about whether scientific evidence is real about climate change and whether the phenomenon requires a government response. When asked about the letters, Kent says that having debates and being challenged demonstrates the “vitality of any government.”

July 2012:

New environmental laws adopted by Parliament eliminate nearly 3,000 federal environmental reviews of industrial projects, including hundreds of projects related to oil, gas and pipeline development.

September 2012:

Peter Kent announces the government has finalized its regulations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal power plants, predicting that the new rules will result in the equivalent of taking about 2.6 million vehicles off Canadian roads over 21 years. The new rules are slated to come into force on July 1, 2015.

His department, meantime, confirms it has handed over the monitoring of data for ozone and radiation in the atmosphere, previously done by atmospheric scientists, to an information technology computer expert.

November 2012:

Following damage caused to the U.S. northeast by Hurricane Sandy, Peter Kent says climate change is a “very real and present danger” that governments need to address.

December 2012:

Canada confirms its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.

February 2013:

Peter Kent says the federal government is “very close” to finalizing new carbon pollution regulations for oil and gas companies.

April 2013:

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who would later become finance minister in 2014, says in an interview with La Presse that scientists are exaggerating the climate crisis. He follows others in Harper’s cabinet and caucus who had cast doubts on occasion about whether humans are significantly contributing to climate change. Those include the prime minister, junior industry minister Maxime Bernier, former public safety minister Stockwell Day and Senator Nancy Greene Raine, a former Winter Olympic champion skier.

March 2013:

The special group created by Environment Canada to develop greenhouse gas regulations for oil and gas companies has its final meeting.

Environment Canada later explains that its engagement with stakeholders on regulations was continuing on many fronts, but that it was moving toward more targeted discussions.

April 2013:

In internal correspondence with the provincial government in Alberta, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers expresses concerns about stringent climate change policies, suggesting that the government should spend more time studying the issue. The industry lobby group also tells the government that tough regulations won’t satisfy its biggest critics.

June 2013:

Peter Kent says industry groups are cooperating with the government’s efforts to introduce regulations, also noting that companies are concerned about “maximiz(ing) profits for their shareholders.”

July 2013:

After being replaced in a cabinet shuffle by Harper’s fifth environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq, Peter Kent says he was “profoundly disappointed” that the government didn’t complete the oil and gas regulations under his watch. He reiterates that the government was close but had to navigate through many lobby interests as well as concerns of putting jobs or investments at risk.

September 2013:

Leona Aglukkaq’s office prevents her department from publicly stating that the government accepts scientific evidence that humans are causing climate change and takes the matter seriously.

Aglukkaq later gives a television interview in which she casts doubts about whether ice is melting in the Arctic.

The CBC reports that Prime Minister Stephen Harper wrote to U.S. President Barack Obama, proposing that they act together to regulate emissions from the oil and gas sector in order to approve TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline project. Harper’s office declined to comment on the letter and the Privy Council Office censored the correspondence in response to a request through access to information legislation.

October 2013:

The Harper government opens a new session of Parliament with a throne speech saying that it will work with provinces to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas companies.

November 2013:

Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq says she’s “not ready” to introduce new regulations for oil and gas companies.


June 2014:

Stephen Harper, at a joint news conference with visiting Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, suggests other countries aren’t being frank about scaling back climate change policies to protect their economies. He suggests aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including a carbon tax, would harm the economy.

November 2014:

Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq pledges to add $300 million in new investments from Canada in an international green climate fund, meant to help developing countries adapt to climate change and develop clean energy sources to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel consumption.

December 2014:

Leona Aglukkaq’s department releases its latest report on greenhouse gas emission trends in Canada, confirming that the country is drifting away from the prime minister’s international target mainly because of rising carbon pollution from oilsands development.

Stephen Harper tells the House of Commons that cracking down on oil and gas pollution – with dropping market prices for oil – without international action is a “crazy” idea, changing his position from 2007.

“I have been very clear in terms of regulating the oil and gas sector,” Harper told the Commons on December 9, 2014. “It is something we would like to do, but that we must do on an integrated basis in a continental economy. Frankly, under the current circumstances of the oil and gas sector, it would be crazy – it would be crazy economic policy to do unilateral penalties on that sector. We are clearly not going to do it.”

Although Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec have all put a price on carbon emissions, including for the oil and gas sector, through market mechanisms or taxes, Harper added that nobody else in the world was regulating their oil and gas sector.

“I would be delighted if they did,” Harper said. “Canada would be there with them. However, we will not impose unilateral penalties.”


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