It has been drummed into our heads for a decade: Canada must move in lock-step with the United States on climate change.
It would be “crazy economic policy to regulate oil and gas emissions ahead of the United States,” former prime minister Stephen Harper told Parliament just over a year ago. “We’re clearly not going to do it.”
His government never did.
Now Canada has a new prime minister who has promised to take a global “leadership role” in the development of a low-carbon economy. Next week, Justin Trudeau will host a First Ministers’ meeting in Vancouver to set a national emissions reduction target and build a framework to reach it.
First he has to de-couple Canada’s climate-change strategy from Washington’s Clean Power Plan.
The problem is not President Barack Obama; his resolve is clear. “I’ve come here personally as the leader of the world’s largest economy and the second-largest emitter to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem we embrace our responsibility to do something about it,” he told delegates to the United Nations conference on climate change in November.
But he is running out of time to deliver and his political adversaries have mounted a massive campaign to stop him. Frustrated by his inability to get legislation through his country’s Republican-controlled Congress, Obama resorted to his executive authority to regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants last summer. At his behest the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued national carbon pollution standards for power plants, designed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by one third over 15 years.
On Feb. 9 the U.S. Supreme Court blocked the implementation of the president’s Clean Power Plan. In a surprise 5-4 decision, it ruled that the White House could not proceed until the legal challenges from the 27 states and an array of energy corporations have been settled. That could take a year or more — by which time Obama will not be president.
Canada cannot afford to wait. Nor can it gamble America’s next president will pick up where Obama left off. The Democrats will at least try. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have pledged to stay the course on climate change. But none of the Republican presidential contenders has put forward a plan to reduce carbon emissions. Jeb Bush and John Kasich promise some as-yet-unspecified action. Marco Rubio rejects the proposition that climate change is man-made. Ted Cruz doesn’t think it’s a problem. Donald Trump dismisses climate change as “just weather.”
Clearly we need a made-in-Canada climate change strategy.
Fortunately, most provinces and territories have already taken steps to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, their collective actions won’t produce enough progress to meet Canada’s international obligations.
Trudeau faces two challenges: to set the bar higher and knit 13 disparate plans — some ambitious, some modest — into a coherent national strategy.
The prime minister’s pledge to create a Low Carbon Economy Trust with an endowment of $2 billion will help. So will the goodwill that exists between Ottawa and most provinces. But neither is enough to guarantee an agreement on March 3. Indeed federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is already dampening expectations of a breakthrough. “The plan is to sit down with the provinces and territories and actually discuss how we are going to reduce emissions across a variety of sectors,” she said last week. The objective is to lay the foundation for that work.
Even before the talks begin it is apparent that matching Washington’s strategy is not — and never was — a viable option. America relies on coal for 39 per cent of its power. In Canada, the proportion is a mere 12.6 per cent.
We need a plan that tackles oil and gas, including the massive reserves of bitumen in Alberta and Saskatchewan; increases the use of clean technologies; encourages municipalities to invest in green buildings and public transit; makes electric cars practical and affordable; and most importantly frees Canada from the oil-first, environment-second philosophy championed by Harper and still upheld by Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall.
That doesn’t preclude working with the U.S. where possible. Last week’s trilateral agreement in Winnipeg (Canada, U.S., Mexico) to negotiate a continent-wide clean energy strategy is a good example.
But Task Number One is to get it right at home.