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British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell addresses the crowd during a dialogue on climate leadership at the World Conference on Sport and the Environment in Vancouver earlier this year. (DARRYL DYCK)
British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell addresses the crowd during a dialogue on climate leadership at the World Conference on Sport and the Environment in Vancouver earlier this year. (DARRYL DYCK)

Provinces go rogue Add to ...

With the Copenhagen climate-change talks approaching, negotiators from North America and China are busy hammering out the details of a deal that could set out a path for drastically slashing greenhouse gases from emission-spewing concrete and steel factories on the Chinese mainland.

But you'll never see Barack Obama, Stephen Harper or Hu Jintao at those talks: The discussions are between the state of California and the Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Jiangsu.

While presidents and prime ministers dicker in Copenhagen, the playbook for battling global warming is quietly being written by a group of U.S. states and Canadian provinces called the Western Climate Initiative. National governments, particularly Canada and the United States, are still hung up on the first step of a climate-change plan, setting the long-term goal for cutting greenhouse gases in coming decades.

But the seven states and four Canadian provinces that make up the WCI are already grappling with the messy political trade-offs and arcane technical details of combatting global warming: everything from motor-fuel standards that will send a chill through Alberta's oil sands to the framework for a carbon-trading system to, yes, regulations aimed at prodding Chinese concrete and steel makers to lighten their carbon footprint.

If the Western Climate Initiative were a country, it would rank 14th in the world by population, bigger than any in Europe, and at 85 million people, nearly triple Canada's size. But its influence is larger still: California, the usual source of environmental breakthroughs in the U.S., is a founding member of the three-year-old group that stretches from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and whose members now include British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.

Time is on the side of the WCI as well, its supporters say. It has filled the policy vacuum created by federal governments, meaning that when they finally turn their attention to the details of combatting climate change, the WCI will have a blueprint waiting for Washington and Ottawa. "We're doing the hard work for them," says Terry Tamminen, a former environmental adviser to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who now works with the WCI.

In one sense, the approach by the WCI and other regional groups in North America is the antithesis of the now-failed Kyoto Protocol, and its successor, the Copenhagen talks. Rather than negotiate lofty national targets and then conjure up ways to meet them, the governments involved in the WCI have simply got on with the comparatively mundane business of designing the mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gases, with the hope that their individual and regional initiatives will eventually form part of a nationwide program. "We don't have to wait for international agreements," says B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, who will be attending the Copenhagen summit.

Mr. Campbell says he has urged the federal government to join the WCI as an observer, in part to help ensure that U.S. climate-change policy isn't used as a Trojan horse to introduce hidden protectionist policies, such as a carbon tariff that would slap a levy on any imported product deemed to be a greenhouse-gas offender.

He, and many others, sees the work of the WCI as a tool for national governments to use once they commit to overall reductions. "We look at it as a blueprint document," Ontario Environment Minister John Gerretsen says.

The blueprint is important, but its details can be incredibly arcane. One of the most recent WCI agreements centred on the question of how to account for the carbon footprint of electricity imported from jurisdictions outside the region - a critical, if stunningly complex, step to prevent utilities from simply outsourcing their emissions.

That kind of complexity is the result of the patchwork of climate-change regulations in North America. British Columbia has a relatively aggressive target to slash greenhouse-gas emissions by 14 per cent by 2020 compared with 1990-level emissions, in line with Ontario's and Quebec's targets. Neighbouring Alberta, in the meantime, has targets that environmental groups say will actually allow emissions to rise 16 per cent from 1990 levels, creating a huge discrepancy in the pressures that each government is exerting on industries that straddle their boundary - often on the very same companies.

Power utility giant TransAlta Corp. is one of the firms having to contend with the welter of climate-change rules, with its operations in Ontario, Alberta, B.C. and several American states.

Don Wharton, TransAlta's vice-president for sustainable development, bemoans the "balkanized" nature of climate-change regulations, saying he foresees a short lifespan for regional rules. By the middle of the decade, they will have been subsumed into a national system, he says.

That leaves companies like TransAlta in a bind, however, when it comes to the single biggest thing they can do to cut greenhouse gases - namely, spending hundreds of millions to replace power plants that burn fossil fuels with renewable energy sources.

There is no sense in basing such long-term and expensive decisions on regulations that may last only four or five years. But the national system that gives comfort to companies such as TransAlta does not yet exist, and may not for years. "We're in the in-between zone," he says.

Federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice did not respond to questions about provincial environment initiatives, although he said last week that the provinces have "considerable room for individual creativity and action within a national policy to achieve carbon reductions."

Environmentalists and companies agree on at least this: The last thing that is needed is competing regulations by two different levels of government. "That would be a nightmare," says Matthew Bramley, a climate-change expert with the Pembina Institute. "That means first movers have, at a minimum, a lot of influence."

With a report from Gloria Galloway in Ottawa.

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