Why is the timing never right for action on climate?

by Eugene Lang. Posted March 19, 2012


Ten years ago, a very senior federal deputy minister told me that implementing Canada’s Kyoto Protocol target to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2012 would force an adjustment on the Canadian economy greater than that of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States. (The FTA, which was ultimately of great economic benefit to Canada, had a significantly disruptive effect on the Canadian economy, especially the manufacturing sector, in the short term.)

This bureaucrat’s comment on Kyoto, made five years after Canada signed the Protocol and the year it was ratified by Parliament, reflected the dominant view within the government at that time. Even with the relatively strong Canadian economy that then prevailed, and with a decade in which to implement Kyoto, conventional wisdom in Ottawa held that Canada’s target was a bridge too far. And this was the opinion within the Chrétien government, which signed Kyoto and remained rhetorically committed to it. As a result, nothing meaningful was done to reduce Canada’s GhG emissions at the federal level during the Chrétien years.

And while the short-lived minority government of Paul Martin claimed adherence to Kyoto’s goals, and proposed “Project Green” under then environment minister Stéphane Dion to help Canada reduce its emissions, it too failed to seriously come to grips with the problem. Neither the Chrétien nor the Martin governments had the stomach, even during periods of strong economic growth and when protecting the environment ranked historically high in public opinion, to move forward with the most effective and efficient tools for reducing carbon emissions – a carbon tax and/ or a “cap and trade” regulatory regime. During the Liberal era, the prevailing orthodoxy of fear over the alleged dire political and economic costs of reducing GhGs had an iron grip on the Ottawa mind, even when the political economy conditions for a strong federal push to curb emissions seemed at their most accommodating.

Enter Stéphane Dion, Liberal Opposition leader from 2006-’08, a climate change theologian who became a Kyoto High Priest when he chaired the 2005 UN Climate Change Summit in Montreal, which extended the Kyoto Protocol and sought to deepen GhG reductions among its signatories. As Liberal leader, Dion, sensing the political winds on the environment generally and climate change specifically were blowing in his favour, ran an entire general election campaign in 2008 on the moral imperative for Canada to cut its GhG emissions, and on the thesis that this could be done in an economically beneficial way that was of no fiscal cost to the taxpayer (in other words, the free lunch version of cutting emissions).

At the heart of Dion’s plan was a carbon tax – known as the Green Shift. It was a very complicated yet ultimately mild tax that was designed that way for fear of the alleged severe political repercussions of asking Canadians to make any sacrifice whatsoever on their carbon consumption.

Dion’s Liberals were defeated in that election, proof enough for many that federal climate change policy can’t sell in Canada.

For their part, the Harper Conservatives have done a shift of their own on GhG emissions policy. One-time climate change deniers, the Harper Conservatives were always hostile to Kyoto, and have recently pulled Canada out of this international agreement entirely. Yet in the 2008 election the Conservatives did propose a “cap and trade” system to reduce emissions. They subsequently abandoned that idea in favour of some targeted industrial regulations that have yet to be implemented after six years in office.

This potted history of Ottawa’s record on climate change policy suggests that for well over a decade the dominant view within the federal government is that there is very little it can or should do to reduce Canada’s GhG emissions. It suggests any attempt to do very much on climate policy will cause damage to the economy that is too significant to accept. It implies that the timing for federal action on climate change policy is never right in Canada – neither when the economy is booming nor when it is slumping; neither when the politics of the environment are in the ascendancy or in retreat; not when governments are strong majorities or when they are weak minorities.

The federal government’s 15-year record on tackling Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions is profoundly depressing. By some measures, we have the second-highest per capita emissions in the world. You would think that embarrassing statistic alone would be enough to get the feds moving.