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Andrew Leach says Alberta needs a climate-change policy that works no matter the price of oil.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Andrew Leach is an energy and environmental economist, professor at the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta, and occasional Twitter troll. He chaired Alberta's climate change panel, which released its report this week – a document widely supported (and adopted) by government, the energy industry and environmental groups. Alberta rolled out an economy-wide carbon tax, and the policy comes with a cap on emissions from the oil sands, plans to phase out coal-fired power plants, and a strategy to increase renewable energy in the province. Mr. Leach spoke with The Globe and Mail about the panel's report and the government's new climate change strategy.

Do you think any of this will make a difference to the environment and climate change?

Certainly the emissions projections that are associated with the policy we proposed are not as deep a cut as some would ask for. But I think from an environmental policy point of view, a more stringent policy applied here that had very significant negative economic impacts that didn't actually lead to emissions reductions – it just led to them being shifted elsewhere – I think that's a much worse outcome both for the environment and Alberta. If Alberta becomes representative of a jurisdiction where environmental policy has gone terribly wrong in an economic sense, that doesn't help future jurisdictions to act on this.

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That's the balance we tried to hit – let's get a policy framework that sets Alberta up to say, "Okay, this is what we're going to do. We can't do more until others come with us, so if you think this problem is important, come with us."

But will it make an actual difference?

The easy answer to that is to say: "What does it do to Alberta's emissions inventory?" The answer to that is it allows us to stabilize emissions, allows us to prevent further growth and reduce 50 megatonnes a year roughly by 2030 relative to projections. So in the global context, that's small. But anything we do in Alberta is going to be small.

The broader question is: "What does it enable nationally and internationally? Is there any leverage here to push other jurisdictions?"And I think so far we've seen evidence that is likely to be the case.

That will be the temptation – for people to say: "What does it do just to Alberta's emissions inventory?" But this is a larger context. And environmentally, it is not just about greenhouse gases. There are quality-of-life impacts [and other factors] that don't get reflected in emissions inventory. Success won't just be judged by an emissions inventory number.

How will you judge the panel's success?

We put forward a policy package that the major stakeholders from environmental groups to the oil and gas industry and from the electricity industry … were supportive of. I think the initial reaction across the board indicates we hit the right sweet spot.

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But the bigger tests are: Can we meet the objectives in terms of protecting low-income consumers, vulnerable communities, and others? I think that's crucial to this policy. Second of all: Does it provide for that reasonable access to [oil and gas] markets for Alberta, so that we're no longer faced with policies or discriminatory actions that stripe our environmental impacts? And then there's also the question of how well does this adapt to changing environments. We need a policy that works at $40 oil; we need a policy that works at $80 oil. I think that's the other test.

What was the biggest surprise?

The most striking moment out of it was the press conference on Sunday, in particular the moment after Murray Edwards [the founder of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd.] finished speaking [in support of the government's policy]. Mr. Edwards speaks, he stops, does sort of a delay, it is pretty crushingly silent in the room, and there's a whispered: "Wow." And then everybody applauds. That would have been probably my wildest dream at the beginning of this – to have both that level of industry and environmental groups support and then the public support.

All of the parties who were present at the end were willing to move off of their previous positions. That shows everybody was clearly listening to everybody else in the process, that the government was clearly listening to the industry … and the environmental groups were clearly also engaged in a much more direct and meaningful dialogue in particular with the oil and gas industry leading into this.

What would you have done differently?

We put a lot of emphasis on pulling in massive amounts of information, and our timelines, as they got accelerated, particularly by the First Ministers' meeting, I don't think we had quite enough time to digest every little bit of information that came to us. We didn't have time to drill down with as many of the stakeholders that provided valuable input to us. The variety of information that came in and our ability to absorb and use every bit of it was pretty limited in some cases.

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The tightened timeline probably pushed us to make decisions more quickly than we would have, but I don't think we [would have] ended up at different decisions.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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