Climate Change Policy – Part 5 (June 2009)

This is Part 5 of the 6-part series: “The descent of national politics into irrelevance and insignificance: Can it be reversed?”

Canada has had four different climate change plans in the last decade but no progress. And Mr. Harper’s leadership on the issue is anything but bold, transparent or even remotely constructive in bringing Canadians together.

Mr. Harper silenced any intelligent discussion during the last election, producing an anemic plan for intensity targets applicable only to large industrial emitters that allows carbon dioxide emissions to rise with production levels. His recent budget lacked any serious environmental focus, especially with respect to renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Mr. Harper has sat on the sidelines with respect to a carbon tax, lending no support to forward-thinking proposals like those adopted in British Columbia last year – and successfully defended through the recent BC provincial election. In the absence of national leadership, regional tensions, real or imagined, are allowed to simmer – those Canadians who express legitimate concern over the environmental impact of the oil sands development are subtly cast as whiners merely opposed to Alberta’s success in oil and gas. And while Quebec forges ahead with locking in huge exports of hydro-electric power to the United States, there is no national discussion on the feasibility of an east-west smart electricity grid.

The federal government is so missing in action that Ontario and Quebec have now joined Manitoba and British Columbia to extend caps on CO2 emissions beyond large industrial emitters as part of the California-led Western Climate Initiative.

Harper has recently taken minimal steps toward convergence with the Americans – proposing a weak cap-and-trade system that kicks in only in 2011, and comparable fuel economy standards for vehicles. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns. Canada has lost all credibility on climate change not just in North America, but also on the global stage. We simply have nothing convincing to say, even for the vitally important Copenhagen Summit in November.

Ironically, just as we get closer to a cap-and-trade system, both Canadian and international business leaders are realizing how complex the system is, especially when compared to a carbon tax or levy that is efficient and fair – applies to all emitters – and yields substantial revenues to reduce other taxes or fund technologies.

The reality is that a national carbon pricing system is essential if we want to get anywhere near acceptable targets for the reduction of greenhouse gases by mid-century. Leaders in the oil, gas, pipeline, energy, and retail and electricity industries have, from time to time, called on Ottawa to implement a national energy policy – not to be confused with the controversial NEP policy of a quarter-century ago. A national energy policy to meet the climate change challenge means: an unambiguous statement of Canada’s national interests and objectives with respect to energy, clear national regulations, infrastructure investments, and a national strategy to help corporations to map out an energy development agenda and be able to prioritize initiatives including research, development and training.

Business leaders understand the need for strong national initiative in this critical area – not to create new intrusions into provincial jurisdiction, but to ameliorate the incoherence of the patchwork of provincial and federal laws, and ease the costs faced by the companies and the uncertainties faced by their shareholders.

If we finally succeed in having an intelligent debate over a carbon pricing system initiated by the federal government, lessons will be learned. Any system must be fully coordinated with provincial programs like those in B.C. and Quebec, and the revenue raised should be remitted back to the province in which it is generated for other green initiatives and technology investments. (A serious problem with the carbon pricing proposal in the Liberal Party Green Shift of 2008 was its entanglement with an anti-poverty initiative.)

Vigorous national leadership is also needed to assist our cities – which use at least 50% of all energy in Canada – to improve energy efficiency and energy conservation, and to develop integrated energy systems involving on-site renewable energy, district energy and combined heat and power. Related initiatives include massive investments in expanding public transit, rebuilding municipal infrastructure, and finally moving forward on high speed rail links.

To be continued. Part Six will wind up this series with an eclectic discussion of a few more issues in need of bold national leadership.