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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Canada's provincial premiers during the First Ministers' Meeting held in Vancouver, B.C. on March 3, 2016. (BEN NELMS/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Canada's provincial premiers during the First Ministers' Meeting held in Vancouver, B.C. on March 3, 2016. (BEN NELMS/REUTERS)

Premiers’ climate change meeting long on principles, short on specifics Add to ...

Justin Trudeau handled Canada’s internal climate-change talks with premiers like those international summits on the same issue: He took the half-loaf of vague principles that he could get and claimed progress, noting that there is an agreement to keep trying for more.

The difference is that the Prime Minister has more power to use this deal to get what he wants next time than any host of United Nations talks ever did.

No, Mr. Trudeau didn’t get premiers to sign on to a specific national carbon price. There wasn’t much hope of that. He was also never going to impose one now, despite public musings by Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and the fears of some provinces. That was a warning that he has a hammer he can use in the future.

So the outcome of the first ministers meeting in Vancouver sounded eerily like what we’ve seen come out of COP (conference of the parties) gatherings, such as the latest one in Paris in December: Participants can’t agree on tricky nitty-gritty details of reducing emissions, so they settle on broad targets and principles.

The premiers agreed that world temperatures can’t rise more than two degrees Celsius, that Canada’s emissions must be cut 30 per cent, that they must set targets to reduce emissions, and that that requires carbon pricing. Mr. Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, tweeted that was “#progress.”

But it’s words. The commitments are vague. Crucially, provinces can interpret what constitutes carbon pricing. That’s not just the difference between B.C.’s carbon tax and the cap-and-trade system Quebec joined, but other things as well. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall argues that his province’s carbon capture-and-storage projects count as pricing too, although it hasn’t turned out to be a cost-effective way to reduce emissions.

So the glass-half-empty conclusion is that it’s a squidgy, politicians’ agreement, without enforceable substance. The glass-half-full version is that all the premiers signed on to something Mr. Trudeau can use to push again – and he has levers.

For starters, the declaration is a reminder that everyone has agreed to goals and carbon pricing, including premiers who are less excited about reducing emissions, such as Mr. Wall.

When Mr. Trudeau wanted that wording, he had allies from the biggest provinces, including Ontario, Quebec and now Alberta. B.C.’s Christy Clark touts her province’s $30-a-tonne tax. Premiers concerned about carbon pricing, such as Mr. Wall and Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil, knew that if they balked at Mr. Trudeau’s bottom line, they would be relatively isolated. They took half a loaf too.

And look at the fine print. They didn’t define carbon pricing – but they set up a working group to “consider the effectiveness of various carbon-pricing mechanisms to contribute to the certainty of emission reductions and their efficiency at achieving this objective at the lowest possible cost.”

No one thinks that Mr. Wall’s capture-and-storage plans will be low-cost any time soon.

Of course, the premiers still don’t have to agree on a carbon price that meets those criteria. But the declaration also calls for the feds to help fund ways to reach further emissions reductions.

The provinces that want a share of the money might find that Ottawa insists they work along the lines of the declaration.

Unlike the UN climate conference in Paris, where the host, French President François Hollande, could only cajole big players with vastly different goals, Mr. Trudeau is the biggest player, and he has allies among the biggest provinces who are all pledging climate action.

And for those who don’t join, there’s the threat that Ottawa will impose a carbon price. The threat isn’t to impose a nationwide carbon tax – it’s a federal carbon pricing in provinces that don’t have their own.

Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals only floated it this time. But they still insist that there will be a national, minimum carbon price. The question is when. Is there a deadline when each province must have its own carbon price or Ottawa will impose one? Is it when the first ministers meet again in October, or in 2017, when their framework is supposed to go into effect?

For now, Mr. Trudeau has accepted a diplomat’s outcome, like those at international talks. But he still has levers the UN can’t muster.

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