Published on Wednesday, May 20 2015
In the PR trade, it’s known as “dump and run.” If you have bad news, or at least something you hope won’t get too much attention, put it out when people are looking in another direction. The Friday before a long weekend will do nicely.
So it was that the Harper government chose last Friday, hours before the Victoria Day weekend, to release Canada’s new target to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions in advance of a crucial international climate summit set for December.
And no wonder. The plan to fight climate change that Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced is, if anything, a step backward from Ottawa’s previous promises. It’s also less ambitious than the targets put out so far by other major industrialized countries. Instead of leading on this vital issue, Canada under the Harper government seems content once again to drag its heels.
Here’s how bad the plan that Aglukkaq called “fair and ambitious” really is:
Canada is now promising to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by the year 2030. That’s actually less ambitious than targets set out by Ottawa back in 2009 at another climate summit in Copenhagen. It puts Canada behind both the United States and the European Union. The U.S. is committed to reducing emissions by 26 to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025. (By comparison, Canada’s new goal would cut emissions by just 23.5 per cent over the same period.) The EU is even more ambitious: it has pledged to reduce emissions by 40 per cent below 1990 levels.
Canada has abandoned its pledge to “harmonize” climate policies with the United States. For years, the Harper government insisted that Canada should move in lock-step with the U.S. in order to have a uniform, continental approach to combating climate change. But now Washington has announced more aggressive policies, and suddenly Ottawa no longer wants to keep up.
As Tim Gray, executive director of Environmental Defence, wrote in the Star last month: “The reality seems to be that harmonization has just been an excuse the federal government used to justify doing nothing, and then quickly abandoned as soon as it meant doing something.”
Ottawa’s new plan does not address the most controversial source of emissions in Canada: Alberta’s oilsands. In addition to the 30-per-cent-by-2030 target, Aglukkaq said Canada will match proposed U.S. regulations to crack down on emissions from three sectors: methane produced by hydraulic “fracking”; power plants that run on natural gas; and makers of chemicals and nitrogen fertilizer. Conspicuously absent from the list is the oilsands, which are expected to produce most of the future growth in Canada’s climate-threatening emissions. Harper has said it would be “crazy” to impose new burdens on the oil sector while prices are low, but it’s a missed opportunity to begin long-delayed change there.
Instead of meeting the new target by actually cutting emissions, Canada seems to be moving toward buying international credits to offset future growth. Previously that was just a possibility, dismissed as a useless gesture by Conservative ministers. But cabinet documents obtained by CBC News now say explicitly that Canada should purchase credits to “counterbalance increasing emissions from the oilsands.”
Fortunately, there is some good news. Despite the lack of national leadership, Canada is getting serious about addressing climate change. But that’s happening despite Ottawa, not because of it. To their credit, major provinces are going ahead on their own and imposing a price on carbon emissions. Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, which together account for 70 per cent of the country’s economy, have announced carbon-pricing schemes and ambitious plans to reduce emissions. Federal leadership would be preferable, but with its feeble announcement last week the Harper government is making it clearer than ever that the provinces should not wait to take action.