From the initial reaction to the Speech from the Throne, one might get the impression that the question of how much Justin Trudeau’s government will prioritize lowering Canada’s carbon emissions is now settled.
His Liberals devoted the first policy section of Thursday’s address to the fight against climate change, called it “the defining challenge of the time” and gave comparatively short shrift to the fate of the fossil-fuel industry. Ergo, per the quick-take Ottawa news cycle, they signalled a willingness to throw their full weight behind transitioning to a low-emissions future, even if that risks exacerbating alienation in resource-reliant provinces. And even if it demands all Canadians embrace upheaval.
No doubt, Mr. Trudeau’s government is poised to pursue climate policy more ambitiously in its second term than in its first, when it was much more ambitious on that front than any previous federal government.
But drill down into the emissions-reduction policies that the Throne Speech passingly touched on, and others that went unmentioned but are in the works, and there remains great uncertainty as to just how uncompromising the Liberals will be.
By this point, the basic policy pillars of their climate strategy are known. But virtually every one of them, from market-oriented climate pricing to more interventionist spending and regulation, still requires deciding between vastly different options. These range from the bare minimum to satisfy people who voted for them, to the most they could do to match the urgency of their language about a climate emergency.
Start with the most obvious and to this point most contentious of those pillars: the federal carbon tax (and accompanying rebate to taxpayers) charged in provinces without equivalent carbon-pricing systems.
The Throne Speech said the government would “continue to lead in ensuring a price on pollution.” It could just mean sticking to the current plan to raise both the consumer and industrial prices from their current $30 a tonne to $50 a tonne by 2022 and stopping there. That would be significant action by current global standards, and more than the party with the best chance of replacing the Liberals in power would do. Or it could mean further ratcheting up in subsequent years, which would likely be needed for the prices to have a transformative impact, but would be more politically risky.
The less Ottawa increases carbon prices – which the pro-carbon-pricing Ecofiscal Commission recently estimated would need to be more than $200 a tonne to alone allow Canada to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement – the more relevant the questions about the scale of the more interventionist pillars.
Consider the government’s emerging push to transform the transportation sector, which alongside oil-and-gas extraction is the biggest source of Canada’s emissions, through what the Throne Speech briskly summarized as making it ”easier for people to choose zero-emissions vehicles.” Minimally, that would mean investing in charging infrastructure for electric cars, while modestly expanding financial incentives to purchase them.
At its more ambitious end, it would mean following recent provincial leads of Quebec and British Columbia by requiring that a certain share of vehicles sold nationally are zero-emissions ones – a policy that would more quickly change the market. However, it would get push-back from an auto sector that provides a fair number of jobs in this country.
Then there is the Throne Speech’s promise to “make Canada the best place to start and grow a clean technology company.” The Liberals intend to ramp up federal clean-tech funding, including with an eye toward technologies (such as carbon capture and hydrogen conversion) that could foster low-emissions industry in the oil patch.
But will that be through broad-based policies such as tax credits, which are relatively uncontroversial but don’t necessarily do much to help smaller businesses scale up? Or will it mean placing big bets on smaller numbers of companies and technologies, with more potential to foster emissions reductions that wouldn’t happen otherwise, but also more risk of embarrassing failure?
Such choices apply to the other climate pillars mentioned in the Throne Speech, such as building retrofits. They apply to others omitted from the text, such as the coming Clean Fuel Standard, on which Ottawa faces competing oil-and-gas industry and environmentalist pressures as it determines how quickly and comprehensively to mandate lower carbon intensity.
And while the Liberals have talked about putting all infrastructure decisions through a “climate lens,” it remains to be seen whether that evolves into only financing projects that meet a certain environmental standard, or merely considering climate impacts alongside other factors.
Even the Liberals’ campaign commitment to track whether these policies have Canada on path to net-zero emissions by 2050, by legislating five-year targets, is ambiguous in its ambition. At its most expansive, it would involve moving toward “carbon budgets” that track emissions by sector or province – something that would add accountability, but that the Liberals may be loath to attempt given current regional tensions.
None of this means that those drawing signals from the Throne Speech – environmentalists lauding it, Conservatives lamenting it, pundits inferring that the Liberals will emphasize climate policies to keep their minority government afloat – were wrong to do so.
Nor should the Liberals have been expected to delve into greater detail on Parliament’s first day. This was a time for broadly signalling what will occupy their time and energy, and they made clear that climate is a big part of that answer.
But just about every day, for as long as they hold power, hard choices about how much to make good on their rhetoric will test how true they are to it, and at what cost. At this point, even they don’t really know how they’ll respond.
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