Abrogation and Distortion in Canadian Climate Policy: Commentary on Prentice’s Copenhagen Commitment Speech

George Hoberg

Canada's Environment Minister, Jim Prentice

Canada's Environment Minister, Jim Prentice

February 4, 2010

On January 30, Canada’s Minister of Environment, Jim Prentice, finally announced the country’s commitment to greenhouse gas mitigation under the Copenhagen Accord. Its target for 2020 is a 17 percent reduction below 2005 levels. In a speech at the University of Calgary on February 1, Prentice provided a spirited justification for this target. While it is certainly welcome news that Canada has made a formal commitment to reduce greenhouse gases under the Copenhagen Accord, the target and the government’s justification for it are troubling.

1. Weakening. The new target represents a weakening of the previously stated government target of 20% below 2006 levels; 2020 emissions would be 6% higher under the new target than the old. Canada’s GHG emissions actually declined between 2005 and 2006, so not only is the per cent reduction lower but it is from a lower base.

2. Abrogation of climate policy sovereignty. The text of the Canadian submission is also remarkable because it explicitly ties Canada’s commitment to the actions of another country, the United States. Canada’s formal target is a 17% reduction by 2020 “to be aligned with the final economy-wide emissions target of the United States in enacted legislation.” Since the election of Barack Obama, the Harper government has abandoned its “made in Canada” approach and advocated harmonization with a North American regime with American leadership. In his Calgary speech, Prentice reinforced and extended this message: “Our determination to harmonize our climate change policy with that of the United States also extends beyond greenhouse gas emission targets: we need to proceed even further in aligning our regulations…[W]e will only adopt a cap-and-trade regime if the United States signals that it wants to do the same. Our position on harmonization applies equally to regulation… Canada can go down either road—cap-and-trade or regulation—but we will go down neither road alone.”

I am not naïve about the challenges Canada confronts as a small, open economy adjacent to the world’s largest economy – a substantial fraction of my academic work (e.g., Sleeping with an Elephant and Capacity for Choice) has been about this challenge. But I can never recall such a blatant and resolute proclamation that Canadian policy will be dictated by American policy.

3. Distortion. In his Calgary speech, Prentice showed his Harper Conservative credentials by ridiculing his critics with distorted facts. He mocked the opposition by pointing to their private members’s bill, Bill C-311, which he claimed “proposed a 40 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels.” But the bill calls for 25%, not 40%, reduction below 1990 levels. He attacked the Province of Quebec, a vocal critic of the federal government’s inaction on climate, for its new vehicle emission standards: “Let’s be clear: It’s absolutely counter-productive and utterly pointless for Canada and Canadian businesses to strike out on their own, to set and to pursue targets that will ultimately create barriers to trade and put us at a competitive disadvantage. One of the most glaring examples of the folly of attempting to go it alone in an integrated North American economy is the new, and unique, vehicle regulations introduced by Quebec. These ensure that consumers will basically have to leave that province to buy their vehicles, to avoid levies of up to five thousand dollars, because seventy-five percent of the latest car and truck models don’t conform to the new rules.”

His claim that the policy would increase the cost of a car by up to $5000 is, according to Quebec regulatory officials, a significant distortion. And while Quebec may have moved ahead of the federal government, it is hardly striking out on its own: According to a story in the Financial Post, Quebec has adopted the same standards as California and 14 Northeastern US states neighbouring Quebec. British Columbia is also adopting them. (And, oddly, even the federal government of Canada is planning to adopt them shortly.) Undoubtedly, regulatory diversity has a cost when product markets are highly integrated. This divergence has emerged in North America because the federal government in both countries have been much slower to respond to the climate imperative than subnational jurisdictions.

4. Lack of Preparation. Prentice also exaggerated his government’s preparation in moving forward with climate policy if the United States does act. In stating that his government could harmonize with either a US regulatory or cap and trade approach, he stated that “We’ve already completed much of the extensive analysis and consultation work required to prepare us for both of those options.” It is reasonable to say that the government has performed extensive analysis and consultation regarding the regulatory approach reflected in its “Turning the Corner” Regulatory Framework for Industrial GHG Emissions. That approach, however, is unlikely to be able to achieve Canada’s target, among other reason because it is designed on the basis of intensity targets rather than any broader emissions cap. But the government has not proposed, analyzed, or consulted widely about a cap and trade approach. (Or if it has, it is secret.)

It is precisely this vacuum in policy formulation that produced the surprisingly heated conflict over an analysis commissioned by several environmental groups about the impacts of a realistic mix of policy instruments to meet the government’s prior “20% by 2020” target. Yes, the US Congressional process is notoriously slow. But the stunning lack of progress in Canada in designing a serious greenhouse gas reduction policy creates a real risk that Canada will be completely unprepared if the US finally gets its climate act together. Among other things, Canada will need to address the delicate issues around the oil sands and the related challenges around regional burden sharing. A meaningful national dialogue on climate policy design is long overdue.

In their book Hot Air, Simpson, Jaccard, and Rivers conclude with an 8-point “smell test” on whether or not politicians are serious about their commitment to climate action. Number 1 on the list is “If targets are proposed, but the politicians setting them do not detail how they will be reached, assume failure.” Canada has now revised its target and formalized it in a UN commitment. But it has no plan on how to achieve that target, and no process to develop a plan.

5. A Superpower without Sovereignty. In his Calgary speech, Prentice also chose to talk tough about the oil sands. In surprisingly strong language, he spoke of the need to improve the image of the oil sands or “we will be cast as a global poster child for environmentally unsound resource development.” To avoid that fate, Prentice stated that “we need to up our game, in terms of both environmental vigilance and in terms of our communication efforts.” While such commitments are welcome from Canada’s environment minister, the federal government thus far has done virtually nothing to address the environmental problems of the oil sands, and Prentice did not mention any new plans or initiatives. His statements on oil sands would thus fail Hot Air’s smell test number 1 as well.

In urging action to improve the reputation of the oil sands, Prentice revived Harper’s notion of Canada as a “clean energy superpower.” Harper Initially proposed the concept of Canada as an emerging “energy superpower” in a 2006 speech in London. The notion was dismantled by academics shortly thereafter – Canada does not have the economic and political means and will to be an energy superpower. When the “clean” adjective was added, the notion became even more farfetched. While Canada might have vast potential to export hydroelectricity, the geopolitical clout it does have is with its vast reserves in the oil sands. Barring unforeseen technological advances, it is hard to imagine how the oil sands will be able to legitimately claim status as clean energy.

Indeed, it is quite remarkable that Prentice could claim that Canada aspires to being a superpower of any kind at the same time as he abandons Canada’s climate policy sovereignty by tethering Canada’s climate actions to American policies in its Copenhagen Accord commitment.

The Up Side. There is a potential bright side to how the Harper Conservatives have positioned Canada on climate. Their submission to the Copenhagen Accord validates that international process and will increase moral pressure on Canada to act. More important, if the US does enact climate legislation, the pressure on Canada to follow suit will be immense. The Harper government may be hoping the Obama’s climate efforts will be stymied. But if not, they will be hard pressed not to live up to their commitments, and will have significant political cover to address the opponents to climate action in Alberta.

This entry was posted in Climate Action Policy, Oil Sands. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Abrogation and Distortion in Canadian Climate Policy: Commentary on Prentice’s Copenhagen Commitment Speech

  1. Pingback: Kylie Batt

  2. Pingback: ERIC