Justin Trudeau forged a first ministers' common front on Monday, proclaiming Canada's ambition to be a leader in the global fight against climate change, though the Liberal Prime Minister punted some of the most difficult decisions until after the Paris summit, which begins next week.
The first ministers endorsed the need for their governments to fashion a national climate strategy that will build on provincial plans and agreements. But decisions were put off about what the national target will be, how each province will contribute to that goal, and how forthcoming federal funding will be divvied up among the provinces.
"In Paris, a united Canada will demonstrate that we are serious about climate change," Mr. Trudeau said at a news conference, where he was flanked by 11 provincial and territorial premiers.
"This means making decisions based on science. It means reducing carbon emissions, including through carbon pricing, towards a climate-resilient economy."
In the first national leaders' meeting since 2009, all premiers agreed on the need for Canada to do more to reduce greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions and to rehabilitate the country's international image from laggard to leader. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall sounded a cautionary note, saying the need to make progress on climate must be balanced with concern for the hard-pressed energy sector, where tens of thousands of workers have lost their jobs.
"We need to do better in terms of our record on climate change, our province needs to do better," Mr. Wall said. "But we cannot forget the jobs that are at stake in a sector that's undergoing a lot of stress right now due to $40 [U.S. per barrel] oil. We've got to find the right balance."
Several premiers – including Mr. Wall and Alberta's Rachel Notley – will accompany the Prime Minister for the opening of the Paris summit, again part of an attempt to refurbish Canada's image.
The first ministers will meet again in the next three months to conclude a national climate strategy that will include a national target and a program of action. Tough questions will then have to be answered about how Canada will increase its ambition beyond current federal and provincial plans and about how to set a national target when Alberta – the country's largest GHG emitter – has set no specific goal. The previous Conservative government pledged Canada would reduce GHGs by 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, a goal the Liberals describe as a floor.
On Sunday, Alberta's NDP government unveiled a series of measures – including an eventual cap on oil-sands emissions – that it hopes will end the province's status among environmentalists as a top climate villain. The plan was supported by senior executives from four leading Calgary-based oil companies – as well as former U.S. vice-president and well-known climate campaigner Al Gore, who characterized it as a "powerful signal," albeit a first step.
At the first ministers' session Monday, Ms. Notley said she hoped her government's move "would lead to a significant de-escalation of conflict within Canada and worldwide over the Alberta oil sands.
"More than that, I'm hopeful these policies will send an important message to the world next week in Paris: Canada is back," she said. "We are going to work together, boldly, imaginatively and wisely, to build a national economy that has room in it for a national energy industry that helps drive prosperity through an effective approach to climate change that Canadians can finally put before the world proudly."
Provinces were looking for assurances Monday that the Liberal government would not impose federal climate measures that undermine their own work. Ontario's Kathleen Wynne said Ottawa should focus its role on providing "support to provincial initiatives." Her government is set Tuesday to release its climate "master plan," which includes its planned economy-wide cap on emissions and a market-based system of emissions credit trading in conjunction with Quebec and California.
British Columbia Premier Christy Clark said her province has a world-leading carbon tax, set at $30 per tonne of emissions, which has allowed progress on emissions reduction while encouraging economic growth. Ms. Clark – who froze the levy when she succeeded Gordon Campbell – said her government is consulting with British Columbians on how to move forward. But she has committed not to raise the tax in the current mandate, which runs until mid-2017.
Ms. Clark rejected the idea that there is necessarily a tradeoff between the economy and action on climate change. "I do not believe in this false choice between environment and growth; I think they can happen together," she said.
The premiers and Mr. Trudeau attended an afternoon briefing with two climate-change scientists, where they were told that global warming is real and measurable and the human influence on the climate system is clear.
While the effects of the problem are being felt around the world, the scientists said temperatures in Canada have been increasing at roughly double the global mean rate – and that the trend is expected to continue on into the future. The results, they said, will be heat waves, droughts, more forest fires, infrastructure failures and flooding in coastal areas.
In order to prevent widespread and reversible impacts, global temperatures should not be allowed to arise beyond 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, said Gregory Flato of Environment Canada. But current emissions-reduction pledges by countries headed to Paris would result in warming of between 2.7 degrees and 3.5 degrees. To stay within the acceptable range, global greenhouse-gas emissions will have to decrease rapidly and reach a net output of zero by the end of the century.