Time for a “Medicare Moment” of Federal Leadership in Canadian Climate Policy

The following op-ed appeared in the Vancouver Sun on 16 March, 2016.  The original piece can be found here: http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/Opinion+Federal+leadership+essential+working+climate+change+policy/11789625/story.html?__lsa=c102-87f8


Earlier this month, the first ministers concluded their climate-change summit with the release of a joint “Vancouver Declaration.” The premiers are on board with the Paris agreement to limit climate change to two degrees C, with a first step to reduce Canada’s own greenhouse gas emissions to 30-per-cent below the 2005 level by 2030.

The first ministers all acknowledge the need to continue the transition to a low-carbon economy beyond 2030. They have committed to invest in clean-energy and climate-change adaptation. And despite looming tensions over pipelines, they committed to continuing collaboration to achieve a “pan-Canadian framework” for climate action by early 2017.

Sounds great. If so, why am I skeptical? As a researcher who has studied federal-provincial relations and environmental policy for 25 years, I have seen that intergovernmental agreement all too often has been a vehicle to limit federal interference in provincial resource development. Moreover, the demand for consensus can be a recipe for deference to the least ambitious province.

Canadian federal and provincial governments have been celebrating the importance of collaboration in addressing climate change for almost three decades — while Canada’s emissions have continued to increase. We should not assume that intergovernmental harmony and doing our part to address climate policy go hand in hand.

Indeed, the trade-offs between effective policies and intergovernmental consensus loom especially large in the case of climate change. The uneven distribution of natural resources across this large country has yielded regional economies that vary tremendously in their carbon intensity. Powered by coal and reliant on oil production, Saskatchewan’s per capita emissions are more than six times greater than those of hydro-rich Quebec. Virtually all of Canada’s emissions growth since 1990, and most projected growth, has been driven by fossil fuel production in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.

In that context, federal-provincial consensus on a transition away from fossil fuels is a tall order indeed. It is telling that the provinces that have adopted concrete programs to achieve the deepest percentage reductions are those that already have the cleanest economies. It is no accident that the strongest opposition to a national carbon price has emerged from Saskatchewan, the province with the highest per capita emissions. Even the newly ambitious Alberta climate plan will only return that province’s emissions to their 2005 levels by 2030, which would necessitate a 50-per-cent reduction from all other provinces to meet Canada’s 2030 target.

More importantly, the Vancouver Declaration follows a strategy that failed in past environmental agreements of relying on provincial governments to take the lead in implementing national and provincial standards. There’s no question that some provinces have demonstrated climate leadership. The problem is that not everyone is following.

The first ministers’ agreement in Vancouver was achieved only by allowing that each government could flexibly interpret carbon pricing and set its own price. Remarks after the meeting by Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil suggest that he considers any measure that would cost money to constitute a carbon price. One wonders what would not qualify. It is also striking that the Vancouver Declaration stressed the importance of developing “energy resources,” an increasingly-popular euphemism for fossil fuels. Only in Canada would we see a climate change agreement that celebrates extraction of fossil fuels.

There are three approaches Canada could employ to ensure that we honour our Paris climate commitment (though they could also be combined):

• We could set emissions limits for particular sectors or individual provinces as needed to meet our emissions target, ideally reducing compliance costs through emissions trading.

• We could establish a fixed carbon price and adjust it as needed until we meet our emissions target.

• Finally, we could purchase emissions reduction credits internationally.

The first ministers’ Vancouver Declaration commits to none of these.

One year ago, Justin Trudeau promised that a Liberal government would take a “Medicare approach” to climate change. He noted that Medicare “began as an ambitious and visionary experiment in Saskatchewan. Gradually, over time, other provinces and territories adopted similar models. And the federal government, at key moments, provided leadership.”

It’s time for the Medicare moment in Canadian climate policy. Federal leadership is essential to ensure not just that Canadian governments get along, but that we achieve our international targets and fulfil our obligation to future generations.

Kathryn Harrison is a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.

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