Kathryn Harrison (left) and Andrew Leach (Right)

Learnings from 2023’s I-Week keynote speakers

Talking about climate change policy in a time of crisis, war and rapidly-evolving technology


By Carolina Neri Mercado

Kathryn Harrison’s and Andrew Leach’s Feb. 6 talk on climate change policy provided an insightful kick-off to International Week (I-Week).

Harrison is a Political Science professor from the University of British Columbia. With a background in Chemical Engineering, she worked in the oil industry prior to entering academia and later became a policy analyst for both Environment Canada and the United States Congress. She is currently chair of the Canadian Climate Institute’s Expert Advisory Panel and co-chair of the technical committee of the British Columbia Climate Solutions Council.

Here at the University of Alberta, Leach is a professor under a joint appointment in the Department of Economics (Arts) and the Faculty of Law. He is also an environmental economist whose research covers energy and environmental economics, with a particular interest in climate change policies and the law.

Here’s what Harrison and Leach had to tell us about climate change policy in a time of crisis, war and rapidly-evolving technology.

What we learned

Harrison and Leach used three examples from their research to explore how world events have shaped Canada’s climate policies. These examples include the fall in global oil prices post-2014, COVID and post-COVID inflation, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A drop in global oil prices post-2014 created a boom in new Canadian climate policies as Canada’s leaders tried to adapt to a new world economy that was becoming less reliant on fossil fuels, according to Harrison and Leach.

But strategies such as carbon pricing caused a political backlash as oil and gas supporters argued that climate policies were crippling a high-demand industry. These tensions restrained carbon policy development, the speakers explained.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, oil and gas companies sought regulatory relief as demand for their product dropped. Although the Canadian government conceded to some of their demands — such as the demand for relaxed environmental monitoring during COVID, and the demand to develop offshore oilfields on the East Coast — it continued to increase carbon pricing, mandated increased sales of electric vehicles and strengthened its international climate commitments.

This period also saw rising partisanship, as some on the left viewed the pandemic as an opportunity to “build back better”, whereas many on the right argued that a pillar of Canada’s economy was under threat.

And the war in Ukraine is likely to increase political tensions over climate policy, Harrison and Leach said.

Supporters of oil and gas see an opportunity to make money and create jobs by sending Canadian resources overseas as mutual sanctions between Russia and the rest of Europe constrict the flow of gas across the continent.

However, Leach questioned whether private investment in Canadian liquefied natural gas (LNG) would be high. Europe’s demand for LNG may look radically different by the time Canada would be ready to ship large quantities of the product, and resistance to other major projects such as the Coastal Gaslink pipeline may make investors cautious, he said.

What’s next?

Harrison and Leach stressed the importance of cooperation to bridge Canada’s partisan divide.

They argued that narratives which position climate change policy as a threat to jobs, investment and economic activity will slow progress towards Canada’s net-zero ambitions.

They also explored the role universities can play in the effort to find climate solutions. University campuses face similar challenges to the rest of the world, only on a smaller scale, they said. Universities can be used as a living laboratory by, for example, teaching a just transition class to a group of petroleum engineering students.

The role of International Week

At the event, Professor Harrison mentioned that this is an all hands on deck situation, and we agree. I-Week is the perfect place for organizations and individuals to present their work, while using the framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. It happens every year in February, thanks to the work of University of Alberta International, so if you liked the content of this lecture, make sure to keep an eye out on their socials for next year’s events.

If you want to take a deeper dive into these topics, watch the full lecture below.

We also share recordings of all the speakers who visit us as part of our bi-weekly Lecture Series.

Carolina (Lina) Neri Mercado is an intern with the Sustainability Council and a third-year Human Dimensions of Environmental Management major in the Bachelor of Science in Environmental and Conservation Sciences degree program.



University of Alberta — Sustainability

Meet the students and academics who are discovering solutions to our climate and sustainability challenges. Writing from Edmonton-Amiskwacîwâskahikan, Canada.