While all eyes have been drawn to the devastating wildfires around Fort McMurray, a significant warming of relationships among the Western premiers passed by with barely a blip on the radar.
The Western Premiers' Conference in Vancouver on May 5 and 6 provided an early signal that Western leaders intend to put regional squabbles behind them and bury the hatchet in an effort to address larger regional concerns, such as energy-market access and climate change.
Canadians are used to provinces fighting over energy and the environment. The debate is fuelled by pipeline politics, climate strategy, ideological differences and questions about who should benefit. At times, the deepest divisions appear to be in the West.
The Vancouver meeting was a chance for the four premiers to develop the rapport they need to move forward on big issues. While wildfires understandably kept Alberta Premier Rachel Notley close to home, Brian Pallister – the newly elected Premier of Manitoba – got to know his other Western colleagues a little better.
While news coverage from the meeting touched on disaster assistance, softwood-lumber trade and the need to bring Manitoba into the New West Partnership, less attention was paid to the fact that the premiers found common ground on two of the most crucial, contentious areas: energy and the environment.
The premiers agreed that energy market access is a shared priority and reiterated the importance and urgency of moving Canada's resources to market. B.C. Premier Christy Clark made a spirited defence of the natural-resources sector and market access while arguing for swifter federal approval of liquified natural-gas facilities: "I would argue that, for some people, the importance of Western Canada and resources has been entirely lost when they talk about trying to keep all of our natural resources locked underground forever. It would hobble Western Canada and absolutely harm irreparably the Canadian economy."
Premiers also agreed to take action to address climate change. They affirmed their commitment to the Vancouver Declaration, the broad strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions reached at the First Ministers' conference in March, and to ongoing work to develop a pan-Canadian framework on clean growth and climate change. And, importantly, they put some meat on the bones of a Western strategy. Premiers agreed that for Canada to make a difference globally, we must pursue a range of actions that include technological innovation, adaptation measures and emissions reductions.
This is essentially the framework the Canada West Foundation advocates in a report to be released on Monday, which argues that if the goal is to keep global temperatures well below 2 degrees over pre-industrial levels (the target agreed to in Paris), then Canada should focus on reducing global emissions, not moving them elsewhere.
A successful strategy can be boiled down to three parts: tackling emissions where they exist; reducing emissions around the world instead of pricing emissions to the point that companies move to jurisdictions with less onerous regulations; and encouraging consumers to reduce their own emissions.
Western leaders are right to home in on technological innovation. For example, the Boundary Dam Carbon Capture and Storage Demonstration project near Estevan, Sask., could provide industrial emitters worldwide with a tool to capture coal emissions at source. This matters because emissions are growing fastest in China and India, expanding economies that rely heavily on coal-fired electricity generation.
The west also needs to pay close attention to our emissions-intensive and trade-exposed sectors. If our environmental policies simply shift emissions elsewhere (i.e., to places with weaker environmental policy), then we will have failed to reduce global emissions while making ourselves poorer. This result would satisfy no one.
Yet, this is not a call to do nothing in Canada; the western premiers understand that ship has sailed. The west should start making headway by reducing consumers' emissions, an area of particular interest to Ottawa. An idea that has also started to gain traction is that of an integrated western electricity grid, which would be useful in helping consumers power electric vehicles from clean sources.
Westerners should be pleased their premiers are joining hands to achieve energy market access and co-operate on a climate strategy. We should all hope to hear more good news stories like this in the future – our prosperity depends on it.
Trevor McLeod is the director of the Centre for Natural Resources Policy, and Shafak Sajid is a policy analyst at the Canada West Foundation in Calgary. They are co-authors of a new report: Look Out: Toward a climate strategy that reduces global emissions. www.cwf.ca