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U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to slash carbon emissions includes a push to renewable from coal-fired power.Jim Cole/The Associated Press

Barack Obama has made life uncomfortable for Stephen Harper again, only this time it's while the Canadian Prime Minister is busy reapplying for his job.

U.S. President Obama, preparing for the end of his tenure, raised the ante on environmental policy this past weekend with an ambitious and contentious plan to slash carbon emissions for power plants.

It's a topic Mr. Harper clearly wishes would go away so everyone can just get back to work building an economy fuelled by energy wealth.

Mr. Obama's tough new measures, which include a push to renewable from coal-fired power, represent a gauntlet thrown down to other countries as the United Nations' Paris climate talks approach. The idea is to slash the power-sector's emissions by 32 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030.

The plan will get a bumpy ride from opponents inside and outside Washington, to say the least, but it shows Mr. Obama is pressing ahead on an issue he has held up as crucial since the start of his presidency – the fight against global warming.

Why does this matter to Canada and Mr. Harper as the race to an Oct. 19 federal election gets under way? For one thing, the Conservative government has long said that it won't go it alone on carbon-reduction policies; that any measures to slash emissions from major industries will be harmonized with those in the United States.

This has been the government's tune while TransCanada Corp.'s proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline into the United States from Alberta has been stalled by the Obama administration.

Canada looked sidelined late last year when the United States signed a pact deepening its pledge to cut emissions with China instead of its next-door neighbour and biggest trading partner.

Mr. Harper responded in May with a pledge to reduce Canadian emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, but kept the elephant in the room. The move left out any plan to deal with the oil sands, the country's fastest-growing source of emissions.

Mr. Obama said more than two years ago that his approval decision for Keystone XL would be viewed through the lens of climate change and the oil sands' contribution to global warming.

Now, Mr. Harper concedes it's unlikely there will be a decision on the pipeline until there's a new occupant in the Oval Office.

So here we are on the campaign trail, a time when issues such as climate change can flare up in front of candidates. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau sought to light the fuse in Calgary this past weekend as his run shifted into gear.

Mr. Trudeau took aim at the Harper government's record on carbon-emission policies, saying the environment and economy are intertwined. It sounds like motherhood, but it's what Steve Williams, chief executive officer of Suncor Energy Inc. – Canada's biggest oil sands producer – was trying to get across a couple of months ago when he urged a broad-based price on carbon.

Alberta, which had previously dithered, is now moving ahead on that front. In the three months since she toppled the Progressive Conservative dynasty, Premier Rachel Notley has toughened emission limits while seeking to calm oil-patch nerves by saying the province's bitumen bounty is a "tremendous asset."

The province is doubling its levy on emissions over the next two years from the current $15 a tonne. Also, major emitters will be required to cut emissions by 20 per cent by 2017, up from 12 per cent today.

Meanwhile, Ms. Notley appointed respected University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach to head up a panel to study new carbon-reduction measures that go beyond the large industrial sectors. The Premier said she expects to step off the plane at Charles de Gaulle Airport with solid new policies in hand.

TransCanada Corp., in a sort of strange-bedfellows fashion, made mention of the Alberta NDP's moves in a letter to the U.S. State Department in hopes it will bolster its case for Keystone XL.

It all shows the Conservatives looking increasingly lonely on an issue that much of Canada as well as key trading partners see as crucial to both environmental and economic recovery.

The next 101/2 weeks on the campaign trail will determine whether it's a deal-breaker for voters as they consider the government's record on both.

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