Canada's Climate Targets: the "No, You Drive" approach

Between proroguing parliament and handing control over Canada's climate change policy to the United States, you've got to wonder what we pay these guys for. But I'll keep my snide comments to myself.

Yesterday's announcement that Canada would lower its emissions targets to match targets adopted in the U.S. on Friday was no surprise. For months the current government has been arguing that following the American lead is both our only option, and the most responsible thing to do to protect our economy.

We're a small power, the argument goes, and if we're too ambitious jobs will go South. But this approach to environmental and economic policy is anything but inevitable or responsible. We could have – and hopefully one day will – do much more.

Playing Chicken With the Economy
Underlying the government's approach is the assumption that low targets are good for our economy. Admittedly, if we were the only ones adopting strict targets we would put ourselves at a disadvantage. But by actively blocking the creation of ambitious international targets – as we have done – we are playing chicken with whole sectors of our economy, and falling behind the curve when it comes to developing new ones.

We have already seen how vulnerable parts of our economy are to climate change. Mild winters have allowed pine beetle populations to grow to epidemic proportions. By 2013, 80% of B.C.'s pine forest will be gone. So far, B.C. Forestry companies have lost $600 million, and the big question is whether or not the more than $200 million that the federal and provincial governments are throwing at the problem will manage to stop it from sweeping East across the country. Forestry is a $6 billion dollar industry and employs almost 70,000 Canadians.

New research from the UK's Met Office Hadley Climate Centre, points that worse may be on the way. With the world heading toward a possible 4 degrees of warming by the 2060s, Canada is likely to face increased wild fires, up to 40% reductions in agricultural yields of wheat, corn and other grains, and an accelerated decline in fisheries stocks. That is the course that our current targets are charting.

There is another thing: in the United States low targets are coupled with large incentives to encourage the expansion of green innovation in the energy, automobile and building sectors. Not so here. So while we are putting many traditional sectors of Canada's economy at risk, we are also not supporting the growth of new greener industry. These will be enormous markets with rapid growth, and at present it looks like we will be a very small player.

Anxiety of Influence
To those who say Canada stood no chance of influencing American climate policy, it in fact already has; athough not for the better. Canada was the first nation to base its targets on 2005 instead of 1990 levels of emissions. (Stores pull a similar trick when they increase the price of something and then put it on sale.) The United States quickly adopted that clever manoeuvre.

But there are more positive avenues for Canadian influence, should we re-embrace diplomacy and constructive negotiations. The U.S. is itself a divided house over the issue of climate change. At a provincial level, Canada is already tied in to regional carbon trading networks on both the East and West coasts. These are limited but significant successes.

They are something that explicit federal support could help build and expand. But by refusing to celebrate them or the principles they represent we effectively ceded the field to those who oppose carbon regulation in the U.S. We've left innovative American states, and the Obama administration, in a weakened position and helped to create the situation to which we claim to simply be responding.

The "No You Drive" School of Policy Making
People say that this is a partisan issue – your opinion dictated by your political allegiances. I think that's rubbish. It may be that way in the U.S. but it doesn't need to be. There are important social and ethical implications to our climate change plans. But even putting those aside climate change, and climate change policy, are going to have a defining influence over national and international economies during this century. What we are doing right now seems to me like entering the Free Trade negotiations of the early 1990s with the attitude "let's just see what the American's want to do." No government, Liberal or Conservative would have done that. But at the moment neither the Liberals or the Conservatives are doing much better.

Underlying Canada's new targets is the argument that they are both responsible and inevitable. Really, they are anything but.


2 Responses to "Canada's Climate Targets: the "No, You Drive" approach"

Nic said... 1 February 2010 at 11:35

Nice post Alex. I obviously share your concern that climate targets in Canada are being dictated by US politicians. However, the targets don't actually upset me all that much: we have such a poor history of meeting our targets that I think they're hardly worth writing.

Much more serious in my mind is the fixing of our policy to US policy. Although I agree that some US initiatives are bright spots, overall carbon emissions reductions really depend on the passing of an aggressive and all-encompassing climate bill, which seems to get further and further away all the time. Given the current federal policy here, this means no policy for Canada. I really think that we can start to implement policy in Canada without the kind of competitiveness problems that you describe at the beginning.

Alex Aylett said... 1 February 2010 at 20:32

I agree with you. The lack of strong targets is only one part of our lack of a strong overall policy.

And in general I find the arguments about a loss of competitiveness very unconvincing. They are used to justify putting off changes that - in the very near future - would actually make us more economically competitive.

But I think I know what Bill Rees would say to all this... growth and competitiveness are part of the problem.

Whether talk of competitivity is in and of itself a problem is a whole other issue though.


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