Politicians promising action to combat climate change are as common as traffic jams on Toronto's Gardiner Expressway. But few actually deliver, well aware that what voters might think they want in principle could repel them in practice.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper at least deserves credit for being transparent. No bowing at the altar of the climate lobby if it puts Canada at an economic disadvantage – especially when Alberta is already reeling from low oil prices. With an election approaching, Mr. Harper might strike a more conciliatory tone on the climate. But truly tough action is just not on his radar.
That leaves the provinces to take the lead in ensuring that Canada comes close to meeting its national targets for reducing carbon emissions. But here, too, there's a big difference between premiers striking a pose and those who put their (or rather your) money where their mouth is.
The latest premier to warm up to carbon pricing is Ontario's Kathleen Wynne. Her Liberal government is pledging to unveil a new climate change strategy this spring. The options include introducing a carbon tax similar to British Columbia's "revenue neutral" tax on carbon dioxide emissions, or joining the fledgling cap-and-trade scheme set up by Quebec and California.
For Philippe Couillard, Ms. Wynne's decision is a no-brainer. The Quebec Premier and his Environment Minister David Heurtel are pressing Ontario to join their province's cap-and-trade market. Ontario had committed to the emissions trading scheme in 2008, as part of the Western Climate Initiative. But like all but two of WCI's 11 state and provincial signatories, it later backed out of cap-and-trade.
Mr. Couillard wants Ontario back in. His arm-twisting is part of a broader initiative by the Quebec Premier to assume a more prominent role in the federation on energy and climate issues. He has invited his fellow premiers to Quebec City in April for a summit devoted entirely to climate change and a national energy strategy. Ms. Wynne and Alberta's Jim Prentice have already RSVP'd yes.
By then, Ms. Wynne may have made her choice – carbon tax, cap-and-trade, or something else. Whatever she decides could seal the fate of Quebec's experiment with cap-and-trade, a once much-hailed model for combatting climate change that lost its appeal as governments either did nothing or opted for the relative simplicity of non-onerous carbon taxes over the complexity of administering and policing a carbon market.
Where it's been tried, cap-and-trade has largely been a bust. The European Union's Emissions Trading Scheme is seen as having failed to reduce greenhouse gases, due to design flaws. But Quebec insists it has learned from Europe's failures.
Under the Quebec-California scheme, large industrial emitters of CO2 are given allowances to generate greenhouse gases. Starting this year, their allowances are cut by up to 2 per cent annually, forcing them to reduce their emissions or buy credits. The most recent credit auction established a carbon price of only $13/tonne. But that is expected to rise significantly as the supply of credits declines each year.
Mr. Heurtel, whose official title is Minister of Sustainable Development, the Environment and the Fight Against Climate Change, insists cap-and-trade is superior to a carbon tax – partly because it's "not a tax." It's also tied to "hard targets" for reducing emissions (carbon taxes only nudge in that direction) and generates meaningful cash – a projected $2.8-billion by 2020 for pro-climate initiatives such as electrified public transit.
Still, Mr. Couillard is facing resistance to his carbon pricing model from businesses. It may soon be consumers. Since Jan. 1, fuel distributors are included in the cap-and-trade scheme. The impact at the pump has been slight – barely 2 cents a litre amid falling gas prices. But the hit is intended to grow with each credit auction. Indeed, to have a meaningful impact, consumers must feel the pinch in order to change behaviour.
Critics argue that, as California's junior partner in the emissions trading scheme, Quebec is at an economic disadvantage. California still has lots of low hanging fruit to pick in combatting climate change, while Quebec, with almost of all of its electricity coming from hydro power, faces higher emissions reduction costs.
Indeed, the Quebec government's own special commission on energy issues last year recommended that the province suspend its participation in the cap-and-trade scheme until other states and provinces join.
Washington State recently said yes. But bringing Ontario on board could be critical to the scheme's success – and Mr. Couillard's legacy as a climate leader.