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opinion

Supporters wave signs during an anti-carbon tax rally in Calgary, Oct. 5, 2018.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Most Canadians will not vote for a political party that ignores global warming. All the major Conservative leadership candidates oppose the federal carbon tax. So have the Tories doomed themselves to perpetual opposition, no matter who wins the leadership in June?

Not necessarily. But the next leader will need to be both creative and credible in forging a made-in-provinces plan. Closer co-operation with Alberta could hold the key.

Both Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, the two front-running candidates, have vowed to end the carbon tax imposed by the Liberal government on those provinces that don’t have their own. Scrapping the tax is the right thing to do.

Ottawa imposing measures on provinces against their will is a failure of federalism. The Trudeau government’s high-handed attitude toward provincial governments helped revive the Bloc Québécois and turned Western Canada outside Winnipeg and Vancouver into a wasteland for the Liberals, who also lost the popular vote in the October election.

That does not mean Ottawa should abandon efforts to meet and exceed its Paris targets for reducing emissions. But it does mean co-operating with, rather than confronting, the provinces.

“Provinces have the right to create their own environmental plans," Mr. O’Toole said in a statement. Mr. MacKay was less specific. “Fighting climate change and protecting the environment are important to me,” his statement read. "... I look forward to presenting our vision on this during our campaign.”

The Alberta government under Premier Jason Kenney has already moved to impose its own tax on heavy emitters. Ottawa and Edmonton could work together to further reduce emissions. Could nuclear energy be part of the solution? Or subsidies for home renovations, renewable energy and electric vehicles? What would the most effective mix look like? That would be up to the two governments to work out together.

But Mr. Kenney and a Conservative prime minister would likely make better progress on reducing emissions in Alberta, including oil sands emissions, than anything that Mr. Kenney and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might concoct. That chalice is poisoned.

Similarly, a Conservative federal government could work with Saskatchewan and Ontario and British Columbia and Quebec and every other province to craft a made-in-province approach.

Some provinces might opt for a carbon tax, which is the most efficient and market-friendly way to reduce emissions. Others might prefer a cap-and-trade system to reduce industrial emissions. Others might focus on regulating emissions, the least efficient method of all.

But efficiency isn’t the point. “Any big public policy needs to have broad support across the country,” said Wellington-Halton Hills MP Michael Chong, who ruled himself out of contention for the leadership this week, but who thinks more carefully on climate issues than anyone else in the Tory caucus.

“What’s more important than being economically efficient is achieving reductions in greenhouse gases through public policy that has broad public support,” he said in an interview.

Each provincial and territorial plan would look different. Each would be aligned to meeting the Paris targets. Each would be voluntary, with Ottawa playing the role of supporter and co-ordinator, encouraging best practices and calling out any laggard provincial or territorial government.

Working co-operatively with provinces rather than dictating to them is a slower and messier way for the federal government to reach any given target. But in the long run, it’s a more durable approach.

In the early 2000s, both Liberal and Conservative politicians could safely ignore the issue of climate change. Liberal governments paid lip service, while doing nothing. Conservatives shrugged and said there was no point in acting unless the Americans acted first. In any case, polling showed Canadians considered the matter a low priority.

That’s all changed. Extreme weather and sharply rising temperatures have Canadians demanding action. This gives both federal and provincial governments a mandate to act.

When they roll out their environment platforms, MacKay and O’Toole must go beyond vague promises to fight global warming. They must show how their government, working co-operatively with the provinces, would bend the curve on emissions.

Potentially, they have a better story to tell than the Liberals, who have divided the country over the issue. But this time, the Conservatives need to come up with something real.