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As Canada gears up for the UN climate summit in December, federal and provincial governments are laying out their agendas. Meanwhile, neither the provinces nor Ottawa are on track to meet their own targets

Tar Island facility located at the Athabaska Oil Sands north of Fort McMurray, Ab. Aug. 31/2010. (photo by Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Provinces take the lead on climate policy. Should they?

The Conservatives have treated climate change as a political issue to be managed gingerly. As Shawn McCarthy reports, the provinces have filled the legislative void by establishing their own climate policy, but polls show, that’s not what Canadians want

Carbon policy

Nova Scotia

– Capping emissions from electricity
– Renewable portfolio standard for electricity


– Elimination of coal-fired power
– Green Energy Act


– Joining California in cap-and-trade system
– Carbon levy


– Large emitters regulation on oil and power generation
– Investments in carbon capture and storage

British Columbia

– Economy-wide carbon tax
– Landfill gas-management regulation


– Vehicle emission standards for light- and heavy-duty vehicles
– Long-term phase-out of traditional coal-fired power plants

Provincial premiers are taking the lead on carbon pricing in Canada, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper is happy to share the spotlight with them as he prepares for a fall election and a key international climate summit later this year.

New Democrats and Liberals are looking to paint the Harper government as an international embarrassment in the lead-up to the United Nations summit in Paris – to be held just weeks after the federal election.

But the provinces may take some sting out of the opposition attacks. While Mr. Harper shows no interest in developing a national carbon price – members of his government routinely condemn any such a plan as a “job-killing tax on everything” – he is getting political cover from provincial premiers who are taking their own action and warning against federal intrusion.

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard will host his colleagues at a provincial climate summit in Quebec City next month in an effort to co-ordinate and increase provincial climate action. Activists are calling on supporters to converge in Quebec City to demand federal and provincial action on climate, led by a group of Canadian celebrities including singers Sarah Harmer and Claire Boucher, who goes by the name Grimes.

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is preparing to launch a new carbon pricing policy that will likely see her province join California and Quebec in North America’s most ambitious cap-and-trade regime. Although Ms. Wynne criticizes Ottawa’s inaction, her government is promoting the idea that sub-national governments – provinces and states – can fill an existing vacuum.

British Columbia’s Christy Clark argues the provinces have primary responsibility for carbon-pricing policies and Ottawa should refrain from “interventionist” policies, while Alberta Premier Jim Prentice – whose province already imposes modest carbon fees on industry – backs Mr. Harper’s contention that now is not the time to saddle the weakened oil-sands sector with more onerous regulations.


But Canadians are unhappy with the country’s performance on the climate-change issue, and expect Ottawa, not the provinces, to demonstrate leadership, said Nik Nanos, chair of Nanos Research Group. Mr. Nanos has done recent polling on Canadian attitudes for The Globe and Mail and for a joint University of Ottawa/University of Western Ontario energy forum.

“The federal government can’t really vacate this space and say it is a provincial responsibility,” Mr. Nanos said. “Canadians expect the federal government to play a role and many Canadians believe it should play a leading role on these issues.”

But the Conservatives know that voters who care deeply about environmental issues are unlikely to be Conservative supporters at election time. The Conservative game plan has been to say just enough – and do just enough – to reduce the risk of losing independent voters. But the Prime Minister is vulnerable in B.C. and Quebec, where the environment ranks high among concerns, Mr. Nanos said.

In a report released last week, a group of Canadian academics recommended the country adopt a national climate plan with either a carbon tax or cap-and-trade approach. Leaving the issue to the provinces would raise concerns about fairness if emitters in one jurisdiction paid a significantly lower price than emitters elsewhere, said the report from the Sustainable Canada Dialogues, a group of 70 scholars from across the country.

Neither the provinces nor Ottawa are on track to meet their own targets.

Combined federal and provincial actions add up to a gaping shortfall in Canada’s 2020 emissions target, which is 17 per cent below 2005 levels, as Mr. Harper agreed to at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. Environment Canada says the country is on track to be producing 727 megatonnes of greenhouse-gas emissions (GHGs) in 2020 – 20 per cent above the Copenhagen target.

The provinces have all adopted their own 2020 targets, which range, when expressed in Ottawa’s 2005 base year, from B.C’s 32-per-cent reduction to Alberta’s 9.9-per-cent increase. Only Nova Scotia is on course to meet its provincial 2020 goal of a 26-per-cent cut from 2005 levels.

In the lead-up to the Paris summit in December, the UN expects Canada to submit post-2020 targets that would accelerate and deepen emission reductions. Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq has asked provinces and territories to submit their own targets, along with analysis showing how they will attain the goals.

Environmental advocates insist Canada needs strong federal leadership, and even some members of the business community worry about a patchwork of climate policies that will further fragment the country’s economic union.

“If you look at what each province is doing, none of it adds up to what we need to contribute as our fair share internationally to solve the problem,” said Louise Comeau, executive director of the Climate Action Network Canada. “So there is going to be a gap between what the provinces are willing to do and what the federal government needs to incent them to do, or drive them to do.”

As the three federal parties gear up for a fall election, they are taking distinctly different stands on Ottawa’s role



Mr. Harper and his ministers treat climate change as a political issue to be gingerly managed, rather than “perhaps the biggest threat to confront the future of humanity,” as the prime minister himself once proclaimed.

Preparations for the UN Paris summit are being done quietly by Environment Canada bureaucrats, with virtually no public comment from Ms. Aglukkaq or the prime minister himself.

In a statement provided by her office, Ms. Aglukkaq said the government is “working diligently” with the provinces and territories to complete its national commitment to the Paris summit, “which will be both fair and credible.”

The United Nations climate secretariat wants countries to file their statements by the end of March, but Ottawa’s contribution won’t be ready for several months. Critics worry the government will keep it under wraps until after the election.

Though long promised, Ottawa has refused to impose greenhouse gas regulations on the oil sands – the fastest growing source of emissions – or indeed on any industrial source other than coal-fired power, and argues it must act in unison with the U.S.



The NDP is reworking their 2011 promise to implement a national cap-and-trade plan as a key plank for the 2015 campaign, despite Conservative attacks that it would be a “job-killing tax on everything.”

Deputy leader Megan Leslie says the NDP recognizes that some provinces have moved to reduce emissions over the past four years, and any federal plan would have to take those provincial measures into account. That could be done through equivalency agreements in which a province can be exempted from federal regulations when it demonstrates it has similar measures that achieve a comparable outcome, she said in an interview.

The 2011 version of the NDP plan envisioned Ottawa raising $20-billion by selling “allowances” for industry to produce carbon emissions – hence the Conservative attack line on “job-killing tax on everything.” The 2015 version has not yet been costed and will have to take into account provincial plans that raise revenue. But Ms. Leslie said the cap-and-trade plans must raise money that can be recycled into energy efficiency and low-carbon strategies.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press


Justin Trudeau unveiled his party’s climate strategy at a speech in Calgary last month and pledged to pursue a national carbon pricing plan with the provinces. But he has left some key details to be hammered out in negotiations with provinces, thereby avoiding the need to be too specific before the election.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Trudeau said any climate policy “has to be centred around the realities of the federation,” meaning Ottawa can’t unilaterally impose a national carbon pricing regime on the country. Asked whether Ottawa would adopt minimum standards to which all provinces would be held, the Liberal leader said he would “hope” to achieve that end.

Since then, party strategists say the Liberal plan would use incentives and penalties to bring the provinces into line in order to set a more ambitious national target, and then meet it. Such an approach would be a herculean task in a country where the richest western provinces rely heavily on oil and coal for export and power, and the most populous central Canadian provinces import virtually all their fossil fuels.

In effect, the Liberal strategy would result in a process akin to the one pursued by the United Nations, in which jurisdictions of vastly different sizes, economic clout and commitment to climate action pursue their own interests.