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Why Justin Trudeau’s Election Is Good News for the Fight Against Climate Change

4 minute read

For years, climate change activists have criticized the Canadian government as a global warming laggard. The Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who has been in power since 2006, has never taken climate change seriously. When Canada failed to meet carbon cuts set in the Kyoto Protocol—a treaty Canada signed and ratified under a previous government—Harper simply withdrew his country.

But the surprise election of Justin Trudeau yesterday promises to change that perception. The Liberal Party leader emphasized the very real danger of climate change and pledged his support for what he called a “pan-Canadian” approach to the issue. “In 2015, pretending that we have to choose between the economy and the environment is as harmful as it is wrong,” he said in a speech earlier this year.

Even with a resounding win, however, it may provide surprisingly difficult for new Prime Minister Trudeau to enacting strong environmental and energy policy at the federal level in Canada. Control over Canadian environmental and energy policy rests largely with the country’s powerful provincial leaders. Indeed, the country explicitly leaves authority over natural resource management to the provinces. And many Canadians still recall an ill-fated attempt in the 1980s by the federal government to grab a larger share of the profits from energy resources in individual provinces. That program was championed by none other then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father.

“Provinces have enormous authority in so many areas and there are huge regional differences on this issues,” said Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. “Canadians have struggled mightily to put together a federal policy that address emissions.”

Read More: Why Restoring Nature Could Be the Key to Fighting Climate Change

For these reasons, Trudeau appears keen on implementing a carbon pricing scheme that would set targets for emissions reductions at the federal level and allow for provinces to design programs independently to meet those goals. The program, which still needs to be fleshed out, might bear some similarity to the President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, said Rabe, which sets emissions reductions standards for each state based on its current energy sources.

Relying on sub-national governments to act also makes sense given what many Canadian provinces have accomplished already. Authorities in Quebec, the second-largest province in Canada, instituted a cap-and-trade program which allows for the trade of carbon credits with California. The west coast province of British Columbia has the country’s only carbon tax.

Trudeau’s victory comes just in time for a major United Nations meeting on climate change that begins next month in Paris. Under Harper, Canada declared that it would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030 from 2005 level—a commitment widely viewed as inadequate. Trudeau’s election won’t change that commitment given the short timeframe before negotiations begin, but the new Prime Minister has already said he plans to attend the conference along with the country’s provincial and territorial leaders, in a show of support for the international process.

Stronger climate action from Canada won’t stop globe warming on its own—the country emits only 2% of the world’s carbon emissions from the consumption of energy, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, though it has one of the highest per-capita rates in the world. But experts say the defeat of a high-profile climate skeptic like Harper plays an important role in the global debate over climate change. Like other conservatives, Harper doubted that it was possible to take strong action on climate change without damaging his country’s economy. Low-income countries that wanted to drag their feet on climate change could always point to the example of high-emitting nations like Canada that refused to change their ways.

“It makes it easier for other nations of the world to shirk or not take action on this issue when they can point to Canada not really doing anything,” said Rabe. “Now the question is where does Trudeau fit in to all of this?”

See New Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Life in Pictures

Justin Trudeau at Winchester; Mass.
Justin Trudeau at Winchester, MA in 1977.Boris Spremo—Toronto Star/Getty Images
Pierre Trudeau, Margaret Thatcher, Justin Trudeau
Margaret Thatcher, Pierre Trudeau and Justin Trudeau in London, in 1980.Lawrence Harris—AP
Justin Trudeau pictured at age 14 in Toronto, in 1986.Boris Spremo—Toronto Star/Getty Images
Pierre Trudeau, Margaret Kemper and Justin Trudeau after attending a memorial to Michel Trudeau in Montreal, in 1998.Reuters
Justin Trudeau breaks down on his father's casket after reading the eulogy, in Montreal, in 2000.Paul Chiasson—Associated Press
Justin Trudeau and new bride Sophie Gregoire leave in father's 1959 Mercedes 300SL.
Justin Trudeau and Sophie Gregoire leave following their wedding ceremony in his father's 1959 Mercedes 300SL in Montreal, in 2005.Christinne Muschi—Reuters
Justin Trudeau in his campaign office in 2008 in Montreal, two days before the federal elections.David Boily—AFP/Getty Images
Liberal leader Trudeau watches as his son Hadrien carries a pumpkin while touring a pumpkin patch in Gatineau
Justin Trudeau and his son Hadrien in Gatineau, Quebec in 2015.Chris Wattie—Reuters
Inside The Liberal Party of Canada Leader Justin Trudeau Camp On Election Night
Justin Trudeau and Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau wave with their children on election day in Montreal, on Oct. 19, 2015.Kevin Van Paassen—Bloomberg/Getty Images
Trudeau attends a campaign rally in Halifax
Justin Trudeau attends a campaign rally in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Oct. 17, 2015.Chris Wattie—Reuters
Inside The Liberal Party of Canada Leader Justin Trudeau Camp On Election Night
Justin Trudeau, Canada's prime minister-elect, and his wife Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau wave to supporters on election night in Montreal, on Oct. 20, 2015.Kevin Van Paassen—Bloomberg/Getty Images

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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com