David McLaughlin was President and CEO of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy and a Conservative chief of staff.
Memo to the Prime Minister
From: A Trusted Advisor
Subject: That Pesky Climate Change Policy
Paris in the springtime is wonderful, but Paris in December might not be. That is when the United Nations Conference of the Parties will take place.
We must table with the UN our post-2020 climate change plan target, and means to achieve it, before then. (This was actually due by the end of March but, naturally, we missed that deadline.)
The climate change file remains a tricky one for us. Despite our conflation of climate change with nasty carbon pricing, most of the world is actually trying to deal with it.
Last year's China/U.S. climate deal breathed new life into the issue in a big way. For the first time, the world's largest emitter committed to begin to reduce emissions.
The United States, a climate laggard under George W. Bush and a climate braggart under Barack Obama, is actually stepping up to the plate with serious actions and new, more ambitious targets for Paris than we ever considered possible.
That's a problem – for us.
President Obama's use of executive power to force carbon reductions from coal-fired electricity plants goes after his country's biggest emissions problem. Think oil sands for Canada. It may not seem 'cricket' to the Republican Congress who threaten to roll it back, but it will have a meaningful impact.
Happily, you are in charge of both the executive and legislative branches by virtue of our majority government. No such fifth column for us; our opposition is all out in the open where we want them.
As long as the opposition splits the pro-climate change action vote while we roll up the anti-climate change vote, our hard line on taking additional action remains politically productive. After all, it's worked well for us ever since Stéphane Dion's 'carbon tax on everything' Green Shift.
Here's the thing, though. This strategy would work better if the climate target we agreed to in Copenhagen back in 2009 was actually a good one. It wasn't.
Two reasons, one political and one economic, explain this.
The political reason for choosing our target was simple: it was the same as the Americans'. We agreed to a 20-per-cent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2020 because this was the target of our most important political and trading partner led by a very popular president. Since then, we have carried that alignment mantra to its logical conclusion: We cannot move unless the Americans move. For the longest time, they didn't move, so neither did we. Problem solved.
But then Mr. Obama won a second term and upped his climate game in a big way. He's moving. Now we are seriously out of step. Today, the only Americans we are aligned with are in the Republican Congress. The politics are now against us.
The economic reasoning seemed sound at the time too. We would protect our competitiveness by matching the U.S. move-for-move, never getting in front. But we failed to account for our different energy economies. The same climate target actually translates into a higher cost to us compared to them.
You see, it costs more to reduce a ton of carbon here than there. That's because most of our energy supply is already clean due to hydro, unlike theirs due to coal. That cost differential is an economic hit for us if we stick with the same target. But if we try to reduce that impact, as we have been doing by not proceeding with oil and gas regulations, than we simply do not reduce emissions by as much as the U.S. does.
So, we can reduce emissions to the same level as the Americans but at a higher cost or we can lower our costs to match the U.S. but reduce emissions by much less. It's one or the other, not both.
The problem is that we own this target since we came up with it. Now, with Environment Canada showing that we will only get about halfway to the target by 2020, our position is openly scorned as empty. (Not true: it's only halfway empty.)
We need a cover plan. The initial elements are coming together nicely.
First, your statement last week that "It's unlikely our targets will be exactly the same as the United States" gets us out of the alignment problem. Now we can rag the puck without being compared to the Americans.
Second, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq's letter to the provinces demanding information on their climate plans puts them on the hot seat to pony up too. After all, 75 per cent of all reductions to 2020 are expected to come from them anyways.
Let the provinces lead and don't mention the United States. This may seem familiar. It should. Justin Trudeau said as much in a speech in Calgary in February.
From aligning with Obama to aligning with Trudeau. Perfect. What could go wrong with that?