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'Slowing the Beast at its Source': Historic Climate Plan Unveiled at Tar Sands Ground Zero

Despite its shortcomings, campaigners hope new Alberta policy pushes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take bold stance at COP21

Alberta's tar sands fields. (Photo: Dru Oja Day/Dominion/cc)

Alberta's tar sands fields. (Photo: Dru Oja Day/Dominion/cc)

The Alberta tar sands industry, for years the source of extreme environmental damage and fierce critical outrage for its contribution to global warming, on Sunday was served an enormous blow when Premier Rachel Notley announced a historic new climate change strategy. 

"People slowed the beast again but this time we did it at the source," wrote Mike Hudema, Greenpeace Canada's climate and energy campaigner, celebrating the news.

The plan—which calls for a tax on carbon, a cap on tar sands emissions, a phasing out of coal-fired electricity, and a move to renewable wind-generated power—represents a significant shift for a province that "has spent so long on the wrong side of climate action," environmentalists said.

"This is the day we step up, at long last, to one of the world’s biggest problems—the pollution that is causing climate change," Notley declared during a Sunday press conference in Edmonton. "This is the day we stop denying there is an issue."

While the plan has some significant shortcomings—and notably has been endorsed by the tar sands industry—campaigners say that by taking the lead on emissions policy, Notley is paving the way for newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to take the more aggressive stance needed at the upcoming United Nations COP21 summit in Paris.

"Alberta just leapfrogged the Government of Canada on climate ambition, and Prime Minister Trudeau should use this announcement to move forward a plan to truly meet our obligations to a 2ºC world," Cameron Fenton, Canadian tar sands organizer with, said following the announcement. According to Fenton, such a policy would include freezing tar sands expansion altogether, scrapping "unnecessary pipeline projects," and committing to a "justice-based clean energy economy."

The announcement was made one day before Notley joined Trudeau and Canada's other premiers in Ottawa to discuss the country's climate strategy ahead of the Paris talks.

Canada's environmental record has for nearly a decade been crippled by the policies of recently ousted Prime Minister Stephen Harper. And although environmentalists celebrated his departure, it remains unclear what sort of leader Trudeau will be on climate.

Environmentalists say that Trudeau must go further than Alberta's new emissions cap by pledging to keep "unburnable" fossil fuels like tar sands "in the ground."

In fact, Fenton says the emissions cap "is the kind climate policy that we needed a decade ago."

"It’s 2015, the measure of climate leadership is no longer setting a target for how much carbon you’ll put in the air but legislating based on science and keeping fossil fuels in the ground," he continued.

As Brent Patterson, political director of the Council of Canadians, noted on Monday, the policy still allows for the growth of the industry through the construction of the Energy East and TransMountain pipelines.

Stephen Kretzmann, executive director of Oil Change International, agreed that "slowing—and stopping—the growth in the tar sands must be the first step" for Canada to live up to its obligation in tackling global climate change. "The idea that tar sands growth is inevitable has left the building," Kretzmann said. "Good riddance."

Indeed, credit for the sea change in Alberta's climate policy was given to the First Nations and environmental activists who brought global awareness to the high-carbon cost of the tar sands industry, which has spurred such momentous policy decisions as U.S. President Obama's recent rejection of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

"Today is a historic moment for climate activism in Alberta and its one more win for the climate movement that continues to rack up victories right across North America," Greenpeace's Hudema added.

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