Dave Sawyer is a climate economist with EnviroEconomics, the Development Director for Carbon Management Canada's Low Carbon Pathways Group and a past vice-president with the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Tweets: @enviroeconomics
Sometimes – not often – it's fun to watch Canadian climate policy. Take for example, the Prime Minister's climate change moves of the past month and a half. First, at the G20 Summit in Brisbane in November, Stephen Harper committed $300-million to the United Nation's Green Climate Fund. Then, a few weeks later, he was up in the House of Commons expounding on the economic craziness of climate policy. Then, just a week before Christmas, Mr. Harper tempered his climate craziness with a nod to Alberta's GHG system regulating the oil sands, saying Alberta has a model that could be broadly applicable. Huh?
So just what is going on with the Prime Minister, and what can we expect in 2015?
First, in 2015, Canada will commit to new long-term GHG reductions. Canada has to stand up in front of the international community at Conference of the Parties in December 2015 (COP21) and commit to long-term reductions in emissions. Expect Canada to come forward in the first quarter of 2015 with a long-term emission reduction pledge and even, perhaps, a climate-change plan.
Peer pressure from world leaders will be significant on Mr. Harper to bring forward a plan to somewhat align future GHG aspirations with comparator countries such as the United States. There will also be pressure to bring forward new policies that will increase ambition in the lead-up to 2020, and at least start to somewhat close Canada's Copenhagen gap. One plausible federal response is to announce a series of sector-by-sector regulations aimed at large emitters that are now more or less finalized. While these pending regulations will not seek significant GHG reductions, they would nevertheless provide talking points on the world stage highlighting enhanced ambition.
Second, Alberta is likely to update its oil and gas GHG regulations in 2015. Despite the sudden impoverishment of the oil and gas sector, the reality is that an updated Alberta GHG system will cost pennies on the barrel. With market access now tied so painfully to GHG performance, Alberta is currently weighing, at the highest levels, all its GHG policy options. Alberta and the federal government have been negotiating joint oil and gas regulations for more than two years, and if Alberta moves, in all likelihood the federal government will need to do something.
Finally, anything could happen, especially in an election year. Leaders at home and abroad have consistently made pledges and committed to policy only to pivot away later as costs were revealed. Pledge and backslide seems to be the dominant climate policy trend of the last 20 years, with no government immune. Examples include the weakening of the European Union emission trading system, the inability of the U.S. to implement policy consistent with its 2009 targets until very recently, Canada's eight national climate change plans, and Australia's long and winding road in and out of carbon pricing. Even Germany, that hotbed of green energy, is of late burning more coal, putting it's GHG targets at risk.
But the political pivot goes both ways, and when world leaders come together, as they will at COP 21 in Paris, anything can happen. In Kyoto in 1997, prime minister Jean Chrétien pivoted with world leaders in the room by adopting a target that was well beyond what had been negotiated with provinces and industry. Mr. Harper in Copenhagen in 2009 also surprised many by aligning Canada's target with the U.S., even though analysis showed that Canada has fundamentally different mitigation costs. Just last month, the Prime Minister pivoted significantly on climate finance, getting ahead of the bureaucracy by announcing in the heat of the Brisbane Summit the $300-million for the UN fund.
So, what can we expect from climate policy in 2015? In the end, as always, it boils down to fickle political will, the only constant in Canadian climate policy. With a federal election looming and global pressure on the Prime Minster to act, 2015 could be a fun year. Just don't expect much.