Quebec is taking the final step in its break from Ottawa on climate change, unveiling an ambitious plan to reduce greenhouse gases and blasting the federal government for inaction only a few weeks before a major international environmental conference.
Premier Jean Charest announced Monday that, by 2020, the province will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 per cent below 1990 levels, a goal similar to the target the European Union has adopted.
The ambitious target-setting is the latest in a series of policy moves on the environment from the provinces, with Quebec and B.C. leading a surge ahead of the cautious position of the Harper government.
Mr. Charest warned that Canada will pay a heavy price if it fails to reduce greenhouse gases significantly, because Europe is set to enforce aggressive emission cuts and is threatening to impose duties on imports from countries that don't follow suit. He said Canada-Europe trade relations could be affected if no international consensus is reached at next month's United Nations conference in Copenhagen, which representatives of Quebec and other provinces will attend as part of the Canadian delegation.
"There's the threat of economic reprisals if we don't follow the path being set in Copenhagen," Mr. Charest said at a news conference after his announcement at the Montreal Council on Foreign Relations. "This is real, this is not fiction. … Our economy rest on exports and on natural resources. For us, the consequences would be very serious."
John Drexhage, director for climate change and energy at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, said that trade reprisals for countries that are not planning to make major cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions are being discussed in Europe and Washington.
"If Canada doesn't come in with any kind of target and doesn't agree to sign on, it is conceivable then that Canada would become victimized by this," he said.
Quebec's stringent new target would give the province the lowest level of greenhouse-gas emissions per resident on the continent. Quebec, where all political parties agree on complying with the Kyoto accord on climate change, already has the country's lowest level of greenhouse-gas emissions - 10 tonnes per resident or the equivalent of half of the Canadian average - because of its widespread use of hydro-electricity. The province has already broken with Ottawa once on the issue, aiming to reduce its emissions by the Kyoto target of 6 per cent below the 1990 level by 2012.
Mr. Charest said he plans to reach the new objective by investing in public transportation and adopting tough regulations to reduce automobile emissions similar to the strict standards set in California. The province is also hoping rapid development and marketing of electric automobiles will significantly reduce its dependency on fossil fuels.
The objective is tied to Quebec's involvement in the Western Climate Initiative, an 11-member group of Canadian provinces and U.S. states that have agreed to implement a cap and trade greenhouse-gas emission system by 2012. Regulations will determine the amount of emissions for each industrial sector, and companies can trade carbon credits.
Ontario and British Columbia are the only other provinces with emission-reduction targets. Ontario plans to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions by 15 per cent below the 1990 level by 2020. B.C. plans to reduce emissions by 33 per cent below 2007 levels, which Quebec said is the equivalent of about a 14-per-cent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020.
Ottawa's intended target is to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020 by 3 per cent below 1990 levels. Mr. Charest urged the federal government to be more aggressive, or face a challenge from Quebec and other provinces before the international community.
"We will defend the Quebec position [in Copenhagen] We won't be shy about it. Furthermore, we are part of a decentralized federation. Once decisions are taken we [the provinces]have the responsibility of enforcing them," Mr. Charest said.
The Quebec government will make its case at tomorrow's federal-provincial meeting of environmental ministers in Ottawa, but the province expressed little hope of persuading the federal government to make drastic changes.
Mr. Drexhage said Quebec's good intentions may be difficult to achieve if Ottawa and other provinces don't embrace similar aggressive policies.
"The more partners there are in pursuing similar kind of targets, the easier it will get to reach that target," Mr. Drexhage said. "Until Ottawa sees the clear message and clear plan coming out of Washington, I doubt very much that we will see them go very far."
Environmental groups applauded Quebec's initiative, but said studies show that reductions of between 25 per cent and 40 per cent below 1990 for 2020 are needed.
"We believe it's possible to go even further and do more in the current context," a coalition of environmental groups stated yesterday. "We will work with the Quebec government and the rest of civil society to suggest courses of action and additional measures to bolster Quebec's objectives."