Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is looking to jump in front of a provincial parade on climate policy when he meets the country's premiers on Monday, as Canadian leaders work to shed the country's image as an international laggard on climate change.
Mr. Trudeau is aiming for a new era of federal-provincial-territorial co-operation with the first gathering of first ministers since former prime minister Stephen Harper convened one at the depth of the global economic crisis in early 2009. But the new Prime Minister is vowing to establish federal leadership in an area where most provinces have forged ahead with their own climate policies aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley on Sunday announced an ambitious strategy for her province, which has depended heavily on oil and coal for its prosperity.
Under the plan, the province will accelerate the phaseout of coal-fired power that was already set to occur under federal regulations, impose an emissions cap that will eventually constrain growth in the oil-sands sector, and establish a $20-per-tonne carbon tax in 2017, which would increase to $30 a year later.
Premiers are welcoming the Liberal government's commitment to work with them on establishing a national plan and new emission-reduction targets after the Paris summit in December. And several of them, including Ms. Notley, plan to accompany the Prime Minister for the opening of the conference to signal Canada's commitment to do its fair share on reducing carbon emissions.
But the provinces are also wary that Ottawa may seek to impose a federal approach despite the fact that in Quebec last April, premiers reached their own framework to guide a pan-Canadian climate approach, and then in the summer, concluded a broad-brush energy strategy focused on innovation and clean technology.
At a conference in the capital on Friday, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Quebec's Philippe Couillard said they welcomed the opportunity to work with the federal government on a national climate strategy but warned against any attempt to impose a plan on them. Ms. Wynne said leaders will be discussing what role Ottawa should play when they meet on Monday, but clearly provinces will be looking for federal money to fund their own programs.
"What we know is that as provinces, we are all on our own track – we have different geography, different economies – so the initiatives that are taken from province to province, territory to territory are going to look different," Ms. Wynne said. "We are not looking to the federal government for some sort of imposition of a standardized unilateral regime across the country. What we are looking for is support for the initiatives we are taking province by province, territory by territory."
Mr. Couillard said the new federal-provincial relationship should be built on the basis of last April's Quebec Declaration, an aspirational document concluded by premiers that made no mention of regulation on large industrial emitters; pledged only vague initiatives that "may include carbon pricing," and set no emission targets. It did commit the governments to advancing innovation and the deployment of technologies needed to transition to a lower-carbon economy.
"We're very happy we're going to be working with the federal government and colleagues around the table but let's resist the temptation of starting from scratch," he said.
The Quebec Premier noted that the vast majority of Canadians live in provinces that have significant climate pricing plans, including the cap-and-trade programs in his province and in Ontario, as well as British Columbia's carbon tax. Ms. Notley is aiming to shake her province's image as a climate villain, a reputation that has bedevilled the oil industry's effort to access new markets.
Indeed, Mr. Couillard urged first ministers to focus on "rebranding" Canada, not just as an oil exporter but as one of the leading producers of renewable energy – including Quebec's own massive hydroelectric power. "Let's start to perceive ourselves as a competitor of Norway rather than a competitor to Saudi Arabia," he said.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has sought to assure the provinces that Ottawa has no intention of imposing a standardized approach on them, though she noted on Friday that Mr. Trudeau has promised to provide national leadership to take action on climate change.
Both Conservative and Liberal governments in the past failed to deliver enough action on climate, the rookie environment minister told a session organized by Canada 2020, an Ottawa-based think tank. Now all Canadians – government, businesses and individuals – will have to play a role and accept some difficult choices, she added.
"We need to come to grips with the challenge we're facing, and we need to act," Ms. McKenna said. "No more delays. No more denial. We need to act. None of this is going to be easy. That's all the more reason to get to work."
Critics question whether the Trudeau government is prepared to drive a national effort to meet targets and establish more ambitious ones, or whether – as the Prime Minister's father once famously quipped about his rival Joe Clark – he will merely play head waiter to the provinces.
The provincial efforts do not add up to an adequate response, said Louise Comeau, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada. "The federal government must show leadership in establishing an approach based on the interests of humanity," she said.