Elizabeth May Looks to Canada’s Green Future

”The truth is that we’re facing human extinction and that’s not something people want to hear. More than ever, we need to support the power of democracies acting in the interest of survival. Hope is essential. We have a responsibility to ensure that the young people of this country – have a safe, secure future. This is all within our grasp. That is what drives me. And we need to have the kind of political leadership that gets people engaged.”

                      — Elizabeth May on Climate Change and Environmental Activism

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Elizabeth May is a member of the Canadian Parliament representing the Saanich-Gulf Islands district in British Columbia. She has been one of Canada’s foremost environmental leaders for decades, and in 2006 the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) named her to the Global 500, an honor roll for the world’s environmental heroes. 

A environmental activist since her teen years and eventually an attorney, May led the Green Party in Canada from 2006 to 2019, making her the longest serving female leader of a Canadian federal party. In 2011, she became the first elected Green Party MP to sit in the House of Commons. Prior to that she founded and served as Executive Director of the Sierra Club Canada (from 1989 to 2006), and at one point worked as a policy advisor to the Canadian Minister of the Environment. 

“I grew up with parents who believed that if you thought something was wrong, you had a moral responsibility to fix it,” she says. Throughout her long career of environmental advocacy she has taken that advice to heart and acted on it. She organized one of the first scientific conferences on climate change in 1988, litigated logging, acid rain, aerial pesticide spraying, protection of the ozone layer and nuclear issues; she created national parks, and in recent years has focused doggedly on climate change education and mitigation policies.

Since May stepped down recently from her leadership of the Green Party, we wanted to find out about her upcoming agenda as a member of the Canadian Parliament. Given that her top priority now is climate change, she is working hard to steer Canada in the direction of a clean energy future:

Q: What are your goals as a Green Party MP?
A: We have a comprehensive platform that people can see by visiting the Green Party website.

But, my top priority is the climate. We must get to net-zero emissions by 2050 and that means carbon emissions must be cut 60 percent by 2030. If we do that we still have time to ensure that our kids can survive. There aren’t any other issues where the stakes are this high.

Q: Are you making progress towards reaching that goal?

Currently we have one of the worst records in the industrialized world. Canada is now 17 percent above its 1990 emissions. We’re actually in the same category as Saudi Arabia when it comes to greenhouse gases. So I say “our house is on fire.”  We cannot continue to kick this problem down the road. We must heed advice from the IPCC and hold critical global average temperatures to 1.5 C. That means that Canada needs to double its targeted greenhouse gas reductions – beyond what has been approved by the two major political parties.

I should mention that our government has recently approved the Trans Mountain pipeline, so that’s a big step backwards.

Q: Could you tell me a bit about your energy and environmental priorities as a Green Party member of the Canadian Parliament?

A: We are pushing for massive and transformative changes in climate policy. In the Green Party we call it Mission: Possible. Some of our goals are:

  • A complete divestment from fossil fuels
  • 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030, decentralization and decarbonization of the Canadian grid
  • Major investment in energy efficiency for buildings.
  • A revenue neutral price on carbon through a fee and dividend system 
  • A phase out of coal-fired electricity and transition to a prosperous, decarbonized economy.

Q: At HOMER Energy we provide the tools to create hybrid renewable microgrids in remote regions – including many areas that have no grid access at all. We’ve done a lot of work in Alaska and the Canadian Arctic. How might microgrids fit into your plans? 

A: You revolutionize energy when it’s distributed. We need to move to a decentralized energy system and shift to more local control of energy generation. Right now, we are fortunate that 60 percent of our electricity is already renewable – that’s because of big hydro. But we need to encourage local solar and wind, run-of-river hydro, and get away from a large, fragile, centralized system. Microgrids can be a part of that.

Q: You mentioned the Trans Mountain pipeline earlier. What is the status? 

A: Yes. A big priority of the Green Party is to divest completely from fossil fuels, starting with the Canadian government! We must stop producing oil from the Alberta tar sands by 2030 if we want to mitigate climate change. The fossil fuel industry would not be able to do what it is doing without public subsidies. Every Canadian government since 2009 has been saying they would stop these subsidies but they still haven’t done it – the oil sands are built on subsidies.

Now Canada is building the Trans Mountain pipeline and speaking of subsidies, this is 100 percent federally owned as of last year. This pipeline will cost almost $13 billion dollars – a major increase from the $7.5 billion it was expected to cost a few years ago. The pipeline will end up on the West Coast in British Columbia and the protests are growing, so it’s an issue that is pitting different regions against each other. By the way this oil will be mostly for export to the US. The Trans Mountain pipeline will mainly be transporting bitumen. Are you familiar with the issues around that? 

Q: Not really. Please explain. 

A: Bitumen is a product of the tar sands and it’s highly expensive to produce. It’s low value no matter what you do. It’s very thick, the consistency of something between asphalt and peanut butter, so it doesn’t “flow” through a pipeline. You have to use “condensate” to dilute it so can move. Condensate is a light, highly explosive form of crude oil that’s filled with toxics like benzene. There was a terrible spill in Kalamazoo Michigan in 2010 which has cost over a quarter of a billion dollars to clean up. That’s because bitumen is so heavy it sinks to the bottom of waterways unlike crude oil. This is what will be going through the Trans Mountain pipeline.

The state of Washington has been opposing this project because they’re concerned it could impact a very sensitive habitat for killer whales. 

Ironically, the Canadian parliament passed a resolution last June declaring we are in a climate emergency. The very next day, the Liberal government approved the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, paid for with $13 billion of public funding. 

So in the Green Party we’re calling for a cancelation of this pipeline – and an end to any subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. We want to use this money to finance upgrades and decarbonization to the Canadian electric grid. We have a lot of work to do. 

Q: You were the head of the Green Party in Canada for 13 years.  What are your feelings about leaving the leadership of the Green Party after such a long time at the helm?

A: It’s important to know when you should leave. I was always comfortable working in an NGO until Stephen Harper came along (He was the Conservative Canadian Prime Minister from 2006 to 2015 representing Calgary in Alberta, the center of Canada’s oil extraction industry, producing 80% of Canada’s oil in 2015). Most people listened when I talked about the importance of environmental issues to Canada’s future – but not Harper. That’s why I got involved in partisan politics.

Now I’m the Parliamentary leader of the Green Party.

Q: Looking back on that experience, what are the accomplishments that make you the proudest?

I’m proud of getting elected at all! But also of creating the space so that other Greens can be elected across the country. A few years ago no Green Party member was expected to win a seat in Parliament. Now we’ve made real strides at the provincial level and established ourselves as a mainstream party with candidates running in every district. We’re continuing to build a strong team, and I’m here in Parliament to support the new leader of the Green Party. 

[ Editor’s note: The Green Party now has three members in Parliament and garnered over a million votes in the last election. ]

Q: Thank you very much for speaking with us Elizabeth.