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Opinion

Canada’s political leaders fiddle, while the planet sizzles 

By Susan Riley      

The federal Liberals, self-described champions of climate action, are approving giant fossil fuel projects at breakneck pace, even compared to their predecessors, the oil-friendly Harper Conservatives.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade
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CHELSEA, QUE.—In the wake of that frightening, if familiar, UN report on the increasingly dire consequences of climate change—along with monthly reports of unusually intense hurricanes, floods, fires, and tornadoes—Canada’s political class is retreating from any sustained effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions faster than a melting glacier.
The federal Liberals, self-described champions of climate action, are approving giant fossil fuel projects at breakneck pace, even compared to their predecessors, the oil-friendly Harper Conservatives. On the heels of the highly controversial Trans-Mountain pipeline expansion, comes last week’s giddy announcement of a liquified natural gas project for Kitimat, B.C., that is expected to blow the province’s carbon reduction plans to shreds. The justification is that increased carbon emissions in Canada, including the methane that comes from more fracking, will be offset as cleaner B.C. natural gas replaces coal-fired plants in Asia. But that hopeful claim rests on a lot of unknowables.
In any event, for federal Liberals, embracing new fossil fuel projects and expanding and extending the life of the oilsands—already responsible for one-quarter of Canada’s emissions—is, at least, an odd way of “transitioning” to cleaner energy.
Under unrelenting pressure from the powerful oil lobby, and in reaction to Donald Trump’s savaging of climate initiatives in the U.S., the Trudeau government has also delayed regulation of methane emissions until 2023. The new rules were to kick in this year and be fully implemented by 2020, but the oil patch pleaded for more time. As usual, its prayers were answered. If precedent is any guide, those regulations could be delayed even further—if not totally abandoned by some future government. This, despite the fact that methane is an extremely damaging greenhouse gas and that containing emissions at source is considered a straightforward fix.
The Liberals also recently increased subsidies for some of the country’s heaviest emitters—cement factories, steel, iron and fertilizer producers—to compensate them for new federal carbon taxes that their American competitors don’t have to pay. There is another interesting test coming: Trump wants to weaken clean fuel standards approved under Obama and, given how integrated the North American automotive sector is—and how quick this president is to punish—how long will it be before Canada trims its standards, too?
Emissions have declined slightly in recent years, but not fast enough to get us close to meeting our 2015 Paris, or even our 2009 Copenhagen targets according to scientific consensus. Progress on phasing out coal-fired electricity generation, led by Dalton McGuinty’s Ontario government, has been the single most effective emission-reducing measure. But, unfortunately, these gains are being negated by projected emission increases from the oil sands and by the growing number of light and heavy trucks on the roads.
So far, Trudeau continues to insist on a federal carbon tax, staking his political future on the measure, despite howls from a growing number of premiers. The carbon tax is scheduled to begin in 2019 at $20 a tonne, or a few cents on a litre of gasoline, and rise to $50 a tonne, and 11 cents per litre, by 2020. Even at the top rate, the tax is considered too low to influence consumer behaviour and inadequate to meet our Paris goal of 30 per cent under 2005 emissions 2030.
Still, a properly designed carbon tax is a simple and effective market mechanism that rewards low-carbon activities, penalizes polluters, and eventually changes behaviour. In fact, American economist William Nordhaus won this year’s Nobel Prize partly for his pioneering work on a universal carbon tax.
But Conservatives, federal and provincial, hate carbon taxes. Jason Kenney, Andrew Scheer and Doug Ford are all reprising Stephen Harper’s old taunt about “the tax on everything.” They also hate cap-and-trade (Ford’s Ontario government pulled out of an existing agreement with California and Quebec immediately after being elected in June.) Scheer promises to announce another approach to containing climate change, as does the Ford government, but their options are few. Regulation of individual polluters, perhaps;  incentives to consumers to better insulate their homes, or buy electric vehicles? These involve government interventions that Conservatives also oppose.
Meanwhile, Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley has pulled her province out of Trudeau’s Pan-Canadian climate initiative in protest over the prime minister’s alleged failure to get Trans-Mountain built. Even in B.C., where John Horgan’s NDP government is propped up by the Greens, applause for his opposition to Trans-Mountain has been muted by his enthusiastic endorsement of the LNG proposal. (He parrots the usual claims: 10,000 jobs, $23-billion for government coffers over 40 years, and environmental “challenges” that will somehow be resolved “down the road”. In fact, many of those temporary construction jobs will go to foreign workers, since B.C.’s industry is booming. And, in return for those revenues, the two governments are offering billions in incentives to the multi-national consortium building the plant and a 670-kilometre gas pipeline. So much for Canada’s G7 pledge to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies by 2025.)
In short, for anyone uneasy about climate change—for their children, if not themselves—the major parties offer weak, wobbly or no solutions. That leaves the Green Party and Québec Solidaire as lone voices for serious climate action. Both are political small fry—although not, perhaps, forever.
Of course, the major parties wouldn’t be ignoring climate change if more Canadians were engaged, enraged and demanding action, instead of succumbing to confusion, denial or despair. How many flooded basements, contaminated rivers, burnt-out townsites, ruined crops, disappearing ice fields —how many more red alerts from the world’s climate scientists—is it going to take, to spur action?
Our problem isn’t only lack of leadership; it is lack of followership, too.
Susan Riley is a veteran political columnist who writes regularly for The Hill Times.
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