For many Canadians, when they think about climate change and look south to the United States, they see a country whose federal government is doing its best to undo international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The view is shaped by the presidency of Donald Trump. He has withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, slashed fuel-efficiency regulations and rolled back 100 environmental rules.
It hasn’t been pretty, but it may be time to rethink our perceptions of U.S. climate policy.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, climate change had become a paramount global issue. It is quickly coming back to the fore, even though the long fight against COVID-19 is far from over.
While Canada in recent years has been a climate leader – the national price on carbon is at the forefront of global policy – there are big shifts taking place south of the border. Canadians could soon begin to feel a little less smug about this country’s climate ambitions.
Federal U.S. climate policy has lurched in only one direction under Mr. Trump, but many states have moved the opposite way. Perhaps more significantly, public opinion has also moved away from the President.
There is even some bipartisan consensus. Last month, the Pew Research Center said two-thirds of Americans believe the government should do more to fight climate change. Democrat voters are heavily in favour, but a majority of Republican voters also back green policies such as an industrial carbon tax, restricting emissions in power generation and stricter fuel efficiency for cars.
The Democratic Party is now moving rapidly alongside public opinion, a push that started on the party’s left flank and has become its mainstream thinking. This is more than a revival of the Obama years. It’s a big step forward – and some proposed policies leap beyond what Canada is planning.
The shift started a year ago, when a group of Democrats proposed the Green New Deal. Backed by heavyweights including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, it was an aggressive and wide-ranging proposal to battle climate change, and also to address non-climate issues, such as bringing in universal health care. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden last year called the Green New Deal “a crucial framework,” although his climate plan did not fully endorse it.
Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democrats in the House of Representatives unveiled a 538-page “Climate Crisis” plan. It is not as aggressive or expansive as the Green New Deal, but it’s not lacking in ambition, either.
Like Canada’s, and Mr. Biden’s, the House Democrats’ plan is grounded in the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. But it goes further than Canada in some important ways.
The Democrats would enact rules to ensure that every car sold in the U.S. is zero-emission by 2035. The non-legislated deadline for Canada is 2040.
The Democrats also would see methane pollution – a potent greenhouse gas that plagues the oil and natural gas industry – cut by 70 per cent by 2025. Canada aims to reduce methane emissions over the same period – with national and provincial policies already in place – by 45 per cent.
One phrase that does not appear in the Democrats’ plan is “carbon tax.” Instead, a “carbon price” is proposed, one whose design looks a lot like Canada’s.
In North American terms, Canada has led the way in fighting climate change at the national level for the past four years. But the pandemic has dominated Canadian politics since March, and Ottawa’s climate policies have moved to the back burner. The government has delayed proposed new clean fuel standards to the fall, and it has no plan to increase the currently modest carbon tax beyond 2022.
In the U.S., the Democrats hope to make the climate a big election issue this fall. The Biden campaign is looking at aligning its climate policies with the party’s. It’s a long way to November, but current polls indicate Mr. Biden has a clear edge for the White House, and Democrats may win back the Senate. The Democrats’ proposals could become law.
Delivering an ambitious national climate policy in Canada during the Trump years has been tricky. It’s not easy to push such an agenda when our biggest trading partner does the opposite. But change is under way. It could be a boon for Canada, and reason to redouble our efforts.