Despite sustained misgivings within party and caucus ranks, the federal Conservative government has, however reluctantly, come around to acknowledging that human-generated greenhouse gases are a driving factor in global climate change that is becoming increasingly evident and undeniable.
What is still lacking, however, is a comprehensive approach to the problem and adequate information to educate the Canadian public as to the scope of the effort required to cut those emissions to sustainable levels, and the costs involved.
These failings were cast into sharp relief by this month’s report by the federal commissioner of the environment and sustainability, which challenged the government’s assurances that it has an effective climate-change plan in place with an achievable target for greenhouse-gas reduction.
That target was set three years ago. It called for a 17-per-cent reduction in Canadian emissions over the 2005 level by the year 2020. It matched the target set by the U.S. at the time, in keeping with the Conservative government’s assertion that it is unrealistic to set more ambitious reduction goals than our southern neighbour – something the preceding Liberal government did in embracing the Kyoto-accord target in 1997.
That target called for Canada to reduce emissions by six per cent over the 1990 level by this year. As it is, our level is now 30 per cent above that benchmark; but it was obvious even by the time the Conservatives took office in 2006 that meeting the Kyoto goal was a pipe dream. Now, however, the Conservative government’s new target appears to be just as unrealistic. The environment commissioner, citing Environment Canada assessments, noted that at the present rate our emissions will have climbed by 7.5 per cent over 2005, rather than dropping to the target level.
The government maintains it is beavering away on a plan, preparing emission-curbing regulations for various sectors, and pleads that these take time – five years on average – to draw up and apply. So far, regulations have been applied to the transportation sector – a good place to start, since it is the biggest greenhouse-gas emitter. But regulations for the electricity-generating sector are on hold for another three years, and none have been drawn up for oil and gas production, which currently accounts for 20 per cent of national emissions.
The choice to proceed by such regulation, which involves complex calculations and considerable back and forth with industry lobbies, is a major reason why the current emission target seems hopelessly unattainable. Another problem with the government’s approach, as raised by the environment commissioner’s report, is that no projected cost for implementation of the government’s plan has been fixed, never mind revealed to Canadians.
The government blames the shortage of costing for its initiative on the complexity of the endeavour. This is undoubtedly true, but it raises the question whether it might not be best after all to seriously envisage some form of carbon pricing – either a cap-and-trade system or a direct carbon tax. It is widely suggested that this would be a more efficient and clear-cut approach than the regulatory approach on which the government has embarked. But the Conservatives did such a thorough job of demonizing former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s carbon-pricing plan that it remains a nettle that mainstream parties with power prospects are reluctant to grasp.
Nevertheless, climate change has to be addressed, in the short run and not the long, with an effective program of emissions reductions. And the cost of doing so must be established and clearly explained to Canadians.
Unfortunately, no government since the issue arose, including the current one, has been able to meet that need.