Canada must take a piecemeal approach in the fight against global warming - The Globe and Mail

Canada must take a piecemeal approach in the fight against global warming - The Globe and Mail


Published Monday, Jul. 13, 2015 3:00AM EDT

Nicolas Chapuis has only been the French ambassador in Ottawa for a few months, but he has already learned this country’s most important secret: Canada works best when the provinces take the lead.

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Mr. Chapuis praised Canada’s commitment to fighting global warming, as nations prepare to gather in Paris in December to renew that commitment.

As a G7 nation and senior Commonwealth member, “it is very important that Canada should take a lead,” in setting goals for the decade 2020 to 2030, Mr. Chapuis maintained. And the Harper government’s pledge to reduce emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 clears the bar. “It is an ambitious contribution,” Mr. Chapuis judged.

Of course, making the pledge is one thing, and getting there is something else. Canada in general and the Harper government in particular have a reputation as laggards on the climate change file. This country reneged on its Kyoto commitment and is behind schedule in meeting its Copenhagen target.

But the current targets are aspirational, and one can question the sincerity of American or Chinese pledges just as easily as Canadian.

What matters for Mr. Chapuis is that the Canadian commitment was made even as “the provinces, which have a shared competence on energy matters, were stepping up.”

There is a growing consensus that climate change is best fought at the regional as well as at the national level, and this is especially true for Canada, where British Columbia has imposed a carbon tax, even as Ontario and Quebec prefer a cap-and-trade approach.

From health care in the 1960s to the environment today, this federation has behaved like a collection of laboratories, in which provinces experiment with various approaches, with Ottawa, at its best, co-ordinating and encouraging and, at its worst, interfering.

Consider what might happen if, after the next election, the federal government attempted to impose a national solution to fight climate change by, say, creating a uniform cap-and-trade program, in which businesses bought and sold carbon credits to meet their caps.

First of all, Quebec would reject such a federal intrusion into its jurisdiction. There would have to be a separate program for Quebec, under exclusive Quebec control but with full federal compensation.

The Western provinces would protest that cap-and-trade is less costly for industrial provinces such as Ontario than for resource-producing provinces such as Alberta. Western provinces would demand laxer standards and additional compensation.

Poorer provinces would maintain they lack the fiscal capacity to implement the program, and demand some form of enhanced equalization.

By the time the program was up and running, the thing would resemble a dog’s breakfast, separatism would be on the march in Quebec and possibly Alberta and no one would be talking to anyone.

In Canada, piecemeal works best.

That understanding was reflected in an international climate change conference hosted by the Ontario government this week in which 21 subnational (or “intranational,” the new buzzword) governments committed to working together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

And energy and the environment are on the agenda for the annual premiers’ summer meeting next week in St. John’s.

Which is not to say there is nothing the federal government could be doing beyond what is already being done. Glen Murray, Ontario’s environment minister, believes Ottawa’s approach of regulating different sectors of the economy in order to lower carbon output is counterproductive and ineffective, as are federal fossil fuel subsidies and other measures.

Queen’s Park would like to see Ottawa using its spending power to invest in infrastructure, offer incentives for public transportation, support green-energy industries and the like.

“The federal government has to stop doing things that undermine federal pollution reduction,” he said in an interview.

Fair points, and ones that should and will be debated during the general election campaign. But Mr. Chapuis reminds us that the larger imperative, when fighting global warming, is to achieve “a balance between the national and territorial orders of government,” as he put it.

Finding that balance is what this nation’s politics is so often about.


Last modified on 14/07/2015

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