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Pan-Canadian framework on climate change: an opportunity for a race to the top

The first ministers’ meeting should signal the start of this race to the top, a clean and honest race, with the provinces paving the way for innovative climate policies and the federal government bringing stragglers into the race by using its jurisdictional and spending powers to deploy those policies nationally. It is time that we all flex our imagination and clean energy muscles and not allow a few laggards to slow us down.

 

By Annie Bérubé, Steven Guilbeault

Montréal Dec. 5, 2016 - On the eve of the first ministers’ meeting to deliver the pan-Canadian framework on clean growth and climate change, we take stock of encouraging recent progress in climate policies, and wish to point out that climate policy has the potential to become a model for the Canadian federation.

Let’s face it. Tackling climate change is hard and can be daunting.

We therefore argue for climate policy to be infused with a healthy dose of competition—a race to the top. And a clean and honest race, not one doped up on fossil fuel infrastructure. Which city will be first to reach 50 per cent of its daily commutes by transit and active transportation? Who will be the first province to reach 50 per cent of electric vehicles sales? Who will start building net-zero social housing? Which government will become carbon neutral first in its own operations?

Thankfully, some provinces have filled the void in federal leadership on climate change over the last 10 years. We have seen leadership in Ontario with phase-out of coal in electricity generation, in Quebec through the electrification of transport, in British Columbia through its clean fuel standard and carbon tax, and more recently with Alberta’s climate plan. Now, the federal government is using evidence from those early adopters to deploy those same climate policies nationally.

This started last October, with the announcement that the federal government would unilaterally impose a carbon price starting in 2018 in those provinces without such a system in place. Environment Minister Catherine McKenna recently announced a tightening of existing federal regulations that could result in a phase out of coal-fired electricity generation in Canada by 2030. Finally, consultations will begin on a national clean fuel standard.

All new national policies borrowed from provincial experience—this is the race to the top and, in our opinion, Canadian federalism working at its best.

Bold and ambitious climate policies are essential for many reasons. First of all, the level of ambition now will determine how close we get to our 2030 emissions target—a 30 per cent reduction below 2005 levels of GHG emissions—and how large the gap will be. Because yes, to be honest, most recent modelling predicts there will be a gap between our target and the emissions reductions achieved by current and recent policies.

To close this gap, McKenna has already stated that Canada would have to rely on the purchase of emissions reduction overseas. Ambitious domestic climate policies can ensure we find cheaper mitigation opportunities here at home, that we export those clean energy solutions to the exploding international market and reap the benefits of growth and job creation, rather than purchasing these clean technologies overseas.

Current federal-provincial wrangling on climate policy is a cause for concern, as it could turn this opportunity for the federation into a race to the lowest common denominator. This started with a threat from the premiers to hold climate policy hostage to a new funding agreement on health care. British Columbia’s non-objection to the federal carbon pricing scheme came at the expense of approval for the Malaysia-based Petronas’ liquefied natural gas terminal—a high price to pay, equivalent to an additional 5 megatons of CO2 every year, to be precise. Then came the watering down of our goal to eliminate coal pollution in Canada through the recent coal phase-out equivalency agreements negotiated with Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan.

And now the Enbridge Line 3 and Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipelines could be adding an additional 13 and 25 Mt of CO2 equivalent (upstream emissions only) respectively every year in Canada. Clearly, we are not tipping the balance sheet in favour of a meeting our commitment to the Paris agreement. Nor are we helping the international community do so by continuing to export our carbon pollution.

Canadians expect better of their leaders.

The first ministers’ meeting should signal the start of this race to the top, a clean and honest race, with the provinces paving the way for innovative climate policies and the federal government bringing stragglers into the race by using its jurisdictional and spending powers to deploy those policies nationally. It is time that we all flex our imagination and clean energy muscles and not allow a few laggards to slow us down.

Annie Bérubé is director of government relations for Équiterre in Ottawa. Steven Guilbeault is co-founder and principal director of Équiterre.

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