When Brian Mulroney was given the title of Canada’s “greenest prime minister” in 2006 — awarded by an expert panel convened by Corporate Knights magazine — it might have seemed like faint praise. In fact, one of the people on the panel — Jim Fulton, executive director of the David Suzuki Foundation at the time and a former NDP MP — said none of the nation’s prime ministers to that point deserved the honour.

Mulroney won five of the 12 votes cast. Pierre Trudeau won three votes and four other prime ministers (R.B. Bennett, Jean Chretien, Wildfrid Laurier and John A. Macdonald) received a single vote each.

Still, the environmental accomplishments of Mulroney’s government are undeniable. It’s only unfortunate that his time in office didn’t offer a sharper turning point in Canadian policy.

Mulroney did not single-handedly end the scourge of acid rain. He did successfully negotiate the Canada-United States Air Quality Agreement — better known as the Acid Rain Treaty — that went a long way toward solving the problem, at least in North America. He did not patch the hole in Earth’s ozone layer — but his government hosted and ratified the Montreal Protocol, through which dozens of countries pledged to reduce the use of chlorofluorocarbons.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney arrives in the rain at a Washington television studio Friday morning, May 5, 1989 where he appeared in an interview. Holding the Stop Acid Rain umbrella is Canadian Ambassador to the United States Derek Burney.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney arrives in the rain at a Washington D.C. television studio on May 5, 1989. Holding the Stop Acid Rain umbrella is Canadian Ambassador to the United States Derek Burney. (Ron Poling/The Canadian Press)

Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government also enacted the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to manage toxic substances in the environment, and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act to review the environmental impacts of major projects.

It established the International Institute for Sustainable Development — still a leading voice on global environmental policy — and launched the National Roundtable on the Economy and the Environment (NRTEE), an expert advisory body that published analysis until Stephen Harper’s Conservative government abolished it in 2013.

Mulroney appointed a string of prominent environment ministers, including Tom McMillan (who employed a young Elizabeth May as a policy analyst), Lucien Bouchard and Jean Charest. And while the 1980s was a time of increasing environmental awareness, the government’s achievements are perhaps even more impressive because, in the words of Rick Smith of the Climate Institute, “environmental policy was not nearly as mainstream a concern as it is now.” 

Mulroney’s interest in Canada-U.S. relations and international diplomacy may have driven some of his government’s action. Under Mulroney, Canada ratified the UN conventions on biodiversity and climate change and in 1988 hosted the Toronto Conference on the Changing Atmosphere, one of the first major international gatherings to discuss climate change.

“For him, international issues, engagement on that was always big,” said David McLaughlin, who was briefly Mulroney’s chief of staff and later served as president of the NRTEE.

The Green Plan that might have been

In 1990, the federal government released “Canada’s Green Plan,” a 174-page statement of intent to deal with a host of environmental problems, including global warming. That plan set a lofty goal of stabilizing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions at 1990 levels by 2000 — the first of several targets Canada would announce and fail to pursue seriously between 1990 and 2015.

In theory, the Green Plan’s goal would have meant holding emissions to 589 megatonnes in 2000. In reality, Canada’s total emissions that year were 719 Mt. Seven years later, Canada’s emissions had hit 748 Mt.

In more ways than one, 1990 seems like a long time ago. Total emissions from the oil and gas sector that year were 101 Mt, accounting for 17 per cent of national emissions. Over the next twenty years, aided by an economic boom in the oil sands, the sector’s emissions doubled; it now accounts for 28 per cent of Canada’s total.

The challenges of acid rain and ozone depletion were not easy to resolve, but it’s fair to say climate change involves a significantly greater degree of difficulty. Until recently, the threat was less tangible. The solutions are also harder to implement — and can take years to show results.

“The problem is the climate cycle is never aligned with the political or the electoral cycle,” McLaughlin said. 

Internationally, it has been hard to get major emitters aligned. But basic politics has proved to be a major impediment in Canada.

The Green Plan touted the possibility of pursuing an emissions “trading” program — what we would now call a cap-and-trade system, one of two primary methods for establishing a price on harmful emissions.

“There is evidence that a market-based approach to the problem can be quicker, more efficient and more effective in reducing emissions and the costs of achieving these reductions,” the PC government wrote.

Political leadership can tackle big problems

The proposed program was framed as one way to battle smog by reducing nitrous oxide and volatile organic compounds.

It would be another 29 years before the federal government finally applied a “market-based” approach to carbon emissions, through the current government’s carbon tax. But now the future of that policy is very much in doubt — Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, Mulroney’s political heir, has loudly and repeatedly vowed that a government led by him will “axe the tax.”

Canada’s emissions are now finally trending downwards and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can fairly claim to have pushed environmental policy further than anyone since at Mulroney. Ironically, Trudeau’s carbon tax now rivals Mulroney’s GST as an object of political scorn.

A man in a dark blazer and blue turtleneck sweater stand behind a podium and in front of two red semi-truck trailer cabs.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre campaigns against the federal carbon tax. Climate change is a greater environmental threat than anything Mulroney faced — and the politics of carbon pricing grow more difficult by the day. (Travis Golby/CBC)

It’s obviously impossible to know whether Mulroney would have made more progress than his successors if he’d somehow remained in office past 1993. But it’s at least intriguing to think about how Canadian politics and policy might be different if a Progressive Conservative government had somehow gotten further down the track toward reducing Canada’s emissions.

But as much as the political battles of Mulroney’s time might seem different from the one being waged now, it’s still possible to take heart from the fact that the fights against acid rain and ozone depletion were won.

Neither win was particularly quick or easy. Nearly three decades elapsed between the scientific discovery of lake acidification and the passage of the Clean Air Act in the United States in 1990. The work to phase out CFCs continued long after the Montreal Protocol was signed.

But acid rain and damage to the ozone layer are no longer going concerns — younger generations may not even know that they were once major problems. If nothing else, that shows big, global problems can be fixed. And history shows political leadership can help make that happen.

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