Politics | December 1, 2023

Polycentric Approach: Canadian Governance and Climate Change Policies for a Sustainable Future

Leen Meqdadi

Polycentric Approach: Canadian Governance and Climate Change Policies for a Sustainable Future

Environmental issues are universal and transcend all political and legal boundaries. These transboundary issues occasionally, but significantly, have an impact on the “global commons” (Cole, 2011), resulting in a call for collaborative solutions (Coase, 2013). The Paris Agreement was adopted by 195 member countries at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) in Paris at the end of 2015 (Seo, 2017), which brought a newfound enthusiasm for global cooperative action against climate change as well as several new directions in international climate change policy negotiations.  Furthermore, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled the Pan-Canadian Framework (PCF) in 2016 as Canada’s own top-down approach to the fight against climate change. This plan established a national minimum for carbon prices. While there are agreements in place, challenges to the implementation of these agreements in a Canadian and Albertan context still exist. Conflict over the PCF is expected to occur between the provincial and federal jurisdictions, which is further complicated by the changing of the political party in power (Christians et al., 2018).

In the event of conflict, the Canadian constitution will be used as the deciding factor in disputes involving federal and provincial jurisdictions (Christians et al., 2018). Thus, one of the strongest ways to achieve collective action in the face of disruptive change is a polycentric governance system in which numerous governing bodies interact to develop and enforce norms within a particular policy arena or place (Schoon et al., 2015). This governance model can help evaluate the Pan-Canadian Framework from an Albertan perspective, which can assist in navigating future conflicts or agreements that may arise around the matter of climate change policies within the region.

This paper will first set up an advanced analytical framework by identifying the polycentric approach. The methodologies used in this theoretical analysis are then identified through the case study of Alberta. The history of the PCF in Alberta is then discussed, along with how Alberta’s participation in the PCF aligns with the principles and ideas of polyarchy. Finally, the findings will summarize and discuss the upcoming measures for policy and research.

Polycentric Governance and Policy-Making

Ostrom (2014) suggests that a single political entity addressing issues with worldwide collective action is inherently weak due to the free-rider problem. While some countries work together to combat climate change, others may “free ride” on their efforts, such as enjoying the benefits of clean air without contributing to it financially or having to alter policies or restrictions for their citizens. As a result, countries typically back out of these agreements because they assume other countries will not abide by those same rules. Thus, no contributions to the mitigation of climate change exist, everyone defects, and it ultimately results in a stable state wherein no nation may benefit from altering its strategy (Ostrom, 2014).

Polycentric governance can create the ability to share the essential eminence of autonomy or independence in decision-making while also developing cost-benefit analyses of specific strategies from one type of ecosystem and comparing them with outcomes in other ecosystems (Ostrom, 2014). Furthermore, polycentric governance understands that the decision-making center is autonomous and acts independently without centralized coordination. McGinnis (2016) proposes a three-part explanation of polycentric governance, entailing: (1) multiple centers of decision making-authority with overlapping jurisdictions, (2) that interact through a process of mutual adjustment during which they frequently establish new formal collaborations or informal commitments, and (3) their interactions generate a regularized pattern of overarching social order that capture scale efficiencies at all levels of aggregation, including providing a safe foundation for democratic self-governance. The magnitude to which these edifices, processes, and results exist varies from case to case.

the old city hall in toronto
Photo by Ali Cuhadaroglu

Scholars frequently claim that decision-making centers in polycentric governance systems exercise “considerable” autonomy or independence, or that they are “semiautonomous.” (Marshall, 2009; Ostrom, 2010). Andersson and Ostrom (2008) use the phrase “some degree of autonomy” to emphasize the ambiguous and situation-specific nature of the required or suitable degree of autonomy. In addition to the issue of delaying actions regarding climate change policies, global solutions negotiated at the international level may not be successful if they are not supported by numerous initiatives at the national, regional, and local levels (Ostrom, 2014). For example, while the distribution of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere may be relatively uniform on a large scale, the effects of climate change differ according to the location, ecological and economic conditions, prior preparedness for extreme events, and past investments in different regions (Ostrom, 2014).

In Canada, the government adheres to a sophisticated, capitalist economy in which economic growth is seen as compatible with climate responsibility (Nicholls, 2023). According to this viewpoint, the interventions necessary for progress have to do with skillful market transformation. By using education, taxes, subsidies, social marketing, and regulations to change the market behaviour of individuals and firms, governments can quickly transition to a successful low-carbon economy (Hanson, 2018). The need to strengthen community resilience in the face of more severe climate impacts is also acknowledged in some circles of the general public, civil society, and government. (Hanson, 2018).It should be highlighted that the involvement of non-state actors—groups or people who are not part of, controlled, or supported by any government (such as the United Nations)—in climate change policy is not a recent phenomenon (Bäckstrand et al., 2017). Other actors will be allowed less room (practically and theoretically) for bottom-up innovation if they are viewed as passive recipients of policy decisions; governments would instead shift responsibility and blame rather than share ownership and accountability (Treisman, 2007). There will be more room for experimentation, economies of scale, and, eventually, the advancement of an inclusive low-carbon transition when governments welcome other players into the policymaking process at all levels and foster autonomy in many sites of authority in the Canadian federation.

Alberta’s Role in the PCF

To determine how Alberta’s approach to the Pan-Canadian Framework (PCF) interprets polycentric governance, this paper focuses on the historical perspective of the challenges met with climate change policy using a methodological framework of path dependency, a phenomenon where history has a role and past events and decisions contribute to resistance to change. For example, Alberta views climate policies through an economic lens because it relies heavily on oil and gas, a dominant economic sector (Riazanova, 2017). From 2015 to the present, the adoption of climate change policies in Alberta has varied according to the political party in power (Osler, n.d.). Following Justin Trudeau’s role in signing the Paris Agreement and developing the PCF, which provides provinces with a guide to ensure Canada meets its goal on the international stage, then-premier Rachel Notley’s New Democratic Party (NDP) government agreed upon the new climate change policies and further established Alberta’s own Climate Leadership Plan (CLP).

Presented in November 2015, the CLP outlined four major components: (1) implement a new tax on emissions of carbon dioxide, (2) create 30% of electricity from renewable sources, and phase out all coal-based energy by 2030, (3) establish an annual cap of 100 megatons for emissions from oilsands, and (4) reduce methane emissions from upstream oil and gas production by 45% by 2025 (from 2014 levels) (CBC News, 2015; Government of Alberta, 2018). The CLP was based on a top-down approach that aimed to follow the PCF while also creating a plan that helps Alberta, including “diversifying the economy” (Government of Alberta, 2019). The CLP also acknowledged conflict resolution, where actors who tackle a problem such as climate change generally have a positive outlook on one another and come to a conclusion in unison. Internal regulations are nevertheless required to resolve potential conflict. The plan brought together important players (businesses, environmentalists, and Indigenous leaders) and had a significant impact on federal administration (Bratt, 2020).

industrial containers and warehouse premises of plant
Photo by Tom Fisk

It is important to note that in 2018, Notley began to think the PCF was no longer “worth the paper it’s written on” due to the federal court ruling against the continuation of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, into which federal and provincial governments had invested a substantial amount of taxpayers’ dollars (Chan, 2019). While the economy-wide carbon tax was repealed when the United Conservative Party (UCP) took office in Alberta in April 2019, the other provisions of the CLP remained in place (Bratt, 2020). Instead, a “federal backstop,” an offer for last-resort assistance, would replace Alberta’s economy-wide carbon tax and introduce new regulations and legislation to carbon pricing (Buck, 2018). Moreover, the federal government unveiled an updated climate plan called “A Healthy Environment and a Healthy Economy” in December 2020 (Arjmand & McPherson, 2022). The strategy expanded on the original PCF initiatives to reduce pollution, generate jobs, and promote environment and economy. Despite that, by 2021, climate change initiatives had little impact in Alberta, which resulted in the province leaving the PCF. Alberta agreed to keep its $30 per tonne carbon tax and continued to phase out coal power generation by switching to renewable energy sources (Doluweera et al., 2020). However, if the provincial government thinks that addressing climate concerns would help it access new markets, its withdrawal from the PCF sends a message that Alberta is not committed to combating climate change. 

The concept of path dependency helps to clarify how climate adaptation measures were viewed in the past and how moving forward, the public and politicians can learn from what has and has not worked to make more effective policy changes. In 2015, a split vote among the conservative parties gave the NDP control of Alberta, and the Liberal Party’s Justin Trudeau ousted Conservative Stephen Harper as prime minister. The newly elected Alberta NDP government enacted a carbon tax, a target for gas and oil consumption, a rule for methane emissions, a cap on oilsands, and a change in industry and regulation to an output-based pricing scheme (Criqui et al., 2019). Prior to 2016, Alberta actively participated in the development of climate change policies, such as acceleration for the phase-out of coal under Rachel Notley’s NDP administration as a result of decisions made by Stephen Harper’s conservative government back in 2012 (Hussey & Jackson, 2019). Alberta should comply with climate change plans and work with the federal government while ensuring that moderate reductions in emissions will have little impact on the price of oil within the province. The carbon pricing program was expected to reduce greenhouse gases by less than 5% (Criqui et al., 2019).

A federal carbon price has been difficult to implement politically because different provinces have varying levels of support for climate action, and there is controversy surrounding federal intervention and constitutionality. It is important to weigh the possible environmental advantages of reducing carbon emissions against the financial burden it carries. As a result, special political deals have been made with some provinces in exchange for their support. In 2019, Alberta United Conservative Party (UCP) candidate Jason Kenney ran and was elected on a platform of repealing the carbon tax. The Alberta Court of Appeal ruled in late February 2020 that the carbon levy was unconstitutional on the ground that it undermines provincial jurisdiction (Hunter, 2021). In contrast, Saskatchewan and Ontario’s respective provincial Courts of Appeal found the federal backstop carbon pricing regime to be constitutional (Hunter, 2021). The absence of significant climate-related rulemaking at the federal level is also an indication of institutional difficulties in executing the PCF. In response to the decision made by the Saskatchewan and Ontario Courts of Appeal, additional adjustments may be made at the provincial and territorial levels, including changes to the way the greenhouse gas pricing system is created so that they not only adhere to federal standards but also take into account the unique requirements of the various industries in each province or territory (Choudhry, 2019). Another example of political deadlock was when Premier Notley withdrew Alberta from the PCF in response to the ruling against the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline expansion project (Tasker, 2018).

photo of an industry building with balconies and large pipes
Photo by SONIC

A significant illustration of the conflicts between federal and provincial jurisdiction are the constitutional challenges to the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act brought forth by obstinate provinces (Winter, 2020). According to MacLean (2019), these issues are more related to Canadian climate politics and have “very little to do with constitutional law doctrine.” As a result, the majority of Canadian provinces are now exclusively using federal backstop carbon pricing (Bratt, 2020). Moreover, the federal government frequently imposes policies on provincial jurisdictions in a process known as vertical policy enforcement, which integrates governance enforcement procedures from the top down. The unique example of the Alberta government’s dissent concerning the federal backstop has shown that provinces can also impact policymaking and even lead policy change to their jurisdiction’s advantage. The evident lesson for other provinces is that “in areas of shared jurisdictions, substantive policy action from the federal government requires support from subnational jurisdiction, although the reverse is not true” (Winter, 2020, p. 17).


Due to the involvement of different levels of government (local, regional, national, and international) and sectors (public and private, NGOs, academia, and local communities), as well as international agreements among countries to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius, current global climate change mitigation and adaption policies are polycentric (Taylor et al., 2014). The Climate Leadership Plan (CLP) established in Alberta follows the Pan-Canadian Framework (PCF) through consultation with other provinces for consensus regarding the federal-provincial plan to fight climate change.

This analysis was devoted to understanding federal and provincial relationships within climate change policies and how Alberta’s participation in the PCF aligns with the principles and ideas of polyarchy. The polycentric governance model allows for two possible solutions to the problem within power dynamics and sub-national government relationships. One solution for controlling the political shift of power is to allow each province to act on its own in reducing emissions rather than choosing to do nothing just because other provinces are not contributing. If Alberta recognizes that it has a provincial and moral responsibility to combat climate change, regardless of previous refusals to commit to cutting emissions, it should continue to do so.

Another step is for the federal government to uphold its commitment to require provinces to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and, if they fail to do so, provide a set policy and an easy responsibility transfer to make adjustments to climate adaptation policies. This provides a precise distribution of multiple governing bodies working together to solve current or future climate change policy issues within the current polycentric climate governance environment (Hsu et al., 2017).Furthermore, the carbon tax established by the PCF confirmed subnational governments’ involvement in nationwide mitigation efforts, advancing the transition to a polycentric climate action environment (Christians et al., 2018). These policies influence provincial and federal relationships by allowing both jurisdictions to have power. Changing political environments and priorities can impact the fight against climate change, but if both federal and provincial bodies work together in polycentric governance, then policies will continue to evolve. Polycentric governance also helps us understand the PCF from Alberta’s perspective.

Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta

A recent example is how Danielle Smith, the current premier of Alberta, has issued a new change in carbon tax development, implying “we will make it our own way” (Thomas, 2022, para. 3). The new government will develop a new carbon tax strategy that is a “fully made in Alberta solution” (Thomas, 2022, para. 1). Though Smith does not consider climate change a key concern, due to PCF regulations and the federal backstop, she is forced to follow climate change policies but has leeway to do so in her way. The upcoming measures for policy and research will come down to the change in political environments. The future of Alberta’s climate politics is still in question; the upcoming 2023 provincial election* will determine whether there is a shift in rigorous climate policy implementation or if matters will remain the status quo. By adopting a polycentric approach to governance and climate policies, Canada can actively work towards a future that is not only more sustainable but also resilient in the face of ongoing governmental shifts.

Editor’s note: This paper was originally written in November 2022. Since then, Premier Danielle Smith has been re-elected.

About the Author

Leen Meqdadi finished her political science honors degree in June 2023. She loves researching international relations topics, dogs and watching reality television

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