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Jeffrey Simpson

It's same old, same old on climate change after Prentice Add to ...

Jim Prentice, who left the Harper government for the Elysian Fields of a leading Canadian bank, was universally known in Ottawa as a nice guy. Not for him the snarling-dog tactics of the Harperites. He stood his ground, but with a certain dignity.

Mr. Prentice should be taken at his word: He didn't want to stay in politics forever, and a lucrative job came along. All that media chatter about him eventually returning from the upper floors of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce to seek the post-Harper leadership was silly.

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The Conservatives aren't going to choose another Calgarian as leader, and he's too moderate for this Conservative Party, anyway. Moreover, the worst possible place from which to run for any party leadership, especially a warmed-over Reform Party called the Conservative Party, would be from Bay Street.

Mr. Prentice, an enthusiastic outdoorsman, dealt with many files as environment minister. Some he handled better than others, notably national parks. On the most important file he faced, climate change, no one could ever tell from the outside whether he fully agreed with the policies the government was pursuing. He must have known, unless he was in serious intellectual denial, that no matter how many times he said Canada would meet its commitment to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 17 per cent from 2005 by 2020, it was simply not plausible.

No one believed that line, not academics, not Finance Department bureaucrats, not oil industry executives, not environmentalists, not foreign governments, not even people in his own department. Worse, Mr. Prentice's departure coincided with the end of whatever hopes might have lingered that Ottawa and Washington, through cap-and-trade systems, would move in lockstep toward that 17-per-cent target. That joint approach had been the linchpin of the Harper-Prentice climate-change policy, and now it lies in tatters.

Hopes for serious action disappeared when the Republicans won a majority in the House of Representatives. Many Republicans don't believe in the science of climate change; many think nothing should be done because the economy is too weak; some see the file as a kind of plot to hold back their country; still others are beholden to Big Oil and King Coal for campaign contributions - as are some Democrats.

President Barack Obama, reading the results of the midterm elections, threw in the towel, proclaiming that pricing carbon - the only serious way to reduce emissions - was now off the political table. Thus crumbled a pillar of the Harper-Prentice approach. Canada will be left to its own policies, and these are manifestly inadequate to reach the essentially unreachable target of a 17-per-cent reduction.

Canada has already been marginalized internationally for its weak climate-change efforts, and those efforts contributed to its failure to win a seat on the Security Council. NGOs regularly awarded Canada "fossil of the day" prizes.

The Harper government will soon be issuing greenhouse-reduction regulations for the coal industry, and new vehicle emissions standards for heavy trucks. Of course, this regulatory approach leaves out the oil and gas industry, whose hands Mr. Prentice was charged with holding.

As always - and this pattern goes back to Liberal government days - the oil and gas industry avoided any serious measures from Ottawa to constrain their emissions. All the industry faced was an Alberta levy tax on emissions over a certain level, with revenue entering a technology fund. It sounds great, unless one understands that the fund is small, relative to needs, and that emissions from the oil sands are set to grow sharply as production expands.

Mr. Prentice, an Albertan, ought to have known, and presumably did, that Canada couldn't possibly meet its 17-per-cent reduction target while Alberta's emissions are scheduled to grow by 14 per cent.

Mr. Prentice is now free from this hellish file - hellish, in part, because the Prime Minister hates the file. Now that the Americans, and Mr. Prentice, are out of the game, the Harper government has to decide what to do. History suggests it will do little.

 

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