Rachel Notley is one hell of a negotiator. She is also the new belle of the climate-change ball. On the eve of the federal-provincial gabfest on climate change, she delivered a big, shiny present – a plan that makes both Alberta and Canada look good. No more rogue nation! We're leaders, not laggards. We can take this to Paris with our heads held high.
No wonder Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted his congratulations. She came through just in time.
Ms. Notley's plan is highly aspirational. It is intended to lead Alberta to a promised land that is both prosperous and green. But it won't be cheap. It imposes an extra $3-billion a year in carbon taxes, at a time when the provincial economy is sinking and job losses number in the tens of thousands. Even so, she has managed to get everyone on side – not just the environmental groups, but also the oil industry. Industry executives are positively rapturous. "This plan will make one of the world's largest oil-producing regions a leader in addressing the climate-change challenge," said Steve Williams, CEO of Suncor.
Translation: Alberta is doing its fair share, so you can lay off now. Please approve some pipelines, and get off our case about dirty oil. The NDP Premier and the industry are on the same page.
For the industry, this deal must come as a relief. Things could have been much, much worse. The industry is at the table, not shut out of the room. It now has policy certainty. (There's nothing business hates more than a fog of doubt about what some crazy government might do.)
The industry is getting some good PR for a change, which it desperately needs. It even has the stamp of approval from a left-wing government.
Also, not much will come out of its hide. The carbon taxes will be economy-wide, which means that consumers will bear much of the pain, in the form of higher heating costs and prices at the pump. Also, for now, Alberta's overall carbon emissions will be allowed to grow. There are no hard targets for emissions cuts – only a broad commitment that emissions will begin to fall below today's levels by 2030. The coal plants that will be shut were slated to close anyway. The new cap on dirty oil emissions is so high that the oil sands will be able to grow another 43 per cent – roughly until the year 2030.
Mr. Trudeau and the other premiers are thrilled. But perhaps they shouldn't be. For all of its ambitions, Alberta's climate plan won't advance the climate goal to which Canada has already committed. In its waning days, the Harper government (oh, irony) pledged that by 2030, Canada would cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels. This is a much, much bigger promise than the one Alberta has just made. Even so, the new Environment Minister, Catherine McKenna, says that target is just a "floor." Which means the rest of Canada would have to come through with impossibly deep cuts to meet the target – so deep that no one can describe how it could be done.
Most Canadians (including far too many politicians) believe that doing our bit for climate change wouldn't be too hard. People want to do the right thing. They imagine we could get there with slightly higher gas taxes, more efficiencies and tougher regulations for the oil patch. Unfortunately, it's not that easy. Alberta's proposed carbon tax, for example, will amount to seven cents a litre at the pump – noticeable, but certainly not enough to change people's behaviour or even pry them from their SUVs. That would require far higher taxes – maybe 10 times higher, or more. Voters wouldn't stand for it.
It's simply not possible to cut emissions 30 per cent without massive economic damage – something no government will impose. The proposition becomes even more unworkable when you consider that, by 2030, Canada will have grown by an estimated four million people.
Meantime, the premiers have made their views clear. They're all hot to trot to save the planet – so long as they, not Mr. Trudeau, call the shots. They want him to send them lots of lovely money to do it. That's what all federal-provincial meetings come down to in the end: Send them the money and they'll go home happy.
As for what Mr. Trudeau will say at Paris, here's a guess: It will be a triumph of marketing.