By Rick Smith, Executive Director of Environmental Defence Canada
Tomorrow, in Washington, DC, Canada’s Premiers will meet with U.S. Governors to talk, in part, about energy and the environment. The meeting neatly captures the fact that the Harper government has given up decision making on this file to the provinces and the Americans in a short term play designed to provide political cover for doing nothing. As with prorogation, however, the risk of backfiring is high.
In opposition, the federal Conservatives questioned the science behind global warming. Upon taking power, their first move was to try to change the channel to getting tough on other kinds of air pollution – smog rather than greenhouse gasses – thinking that voters wouldn’t notice. Voters did notice, though, and the Conservatives haven't done anything on smog anyway.
With the election of Barack Obama as U.S. President, the game suddenly changed. The very next day the Harper government began to pitch the U.S. on a North American agreement on climate and energy, one that would protect the tar sands from emissions cuts. Making no headway, they settled on the tactic of saying that they would simply copy the Americans on climate policy, but do nothing in the meantime. Many of Canada’s pundits have temporarily bought this line, giving the Harper government the cover it needs, for now.
But the Conservatives are missing just how much the game has changed. They still see this issue in old environment versus economy terms, whereas our international competitors are correctly fusing the two. Industrial revolutions are most clearly visible in hindsight, but we know enough to see the world is now going through another, and it’s all about creating jobs in the emerging clean energy economy.
Smart U.S. observers like Thomas Friedman are fretting about how China and Europe are beating America in the race to be the country leading in renewables, efficiency, and in manufacturing and exporting the equipment that makes it all work. Even the U.S., however, is out-spending Canada fourteen to one on a per capita basis in investing in these things. We are falling badly behind as a country.
With energy and the environment being shared federal-provincial jurisdiction in Canada, provinces are stepping into the vacuum left behind by the Harper government, with different and contradictory results. Some provinces, like Ontario, Quebec, and BC, appreciate how much the game has changed and are putting in place policies to create jobs in the new energy economy. Ontario’s Green Energy Act is perhaps the most successful initiative in this regard, already resulting in billions in new investment.
But other provincial governments, like those in Alberta and Saskatchewan, are taking advantage of the vacuum to travel the other direction, doubling down on fossil fuels, and rapidly driving up Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions in the process. When others challenge this direction, they are confronted with the incredibly cynical argument: shut up about the future and instead take the payoff of federal revenues from oil and gas.
Ultimately, the results of the Harper’s government political play on the energy and environment file are untenable. Canadians will eventually tire of hearing that their sovereignty on this file has been ceded to Washington, DC. Provinces will eventually need the federal government to step in and end the practice of some of them eating up the emissions gains provided by others.
And most important, voters will want their leaders to tell them that Canada won’t lose the race to create jobs in the new energy economy, won’t be importing instead of making the new machinery we need to maintain prosperity while reducing emissions, and won’t go down in history as the country that lost its advanced economy status because we could not kick our addiction to strip mining dirty oil from the tar sands.
For now, though, the Premiers will go to DC and try to be diplomatic about the Harper government’s inaction, focusing instead on what they are themselves doing to fill the vacuum at the provincial level. The Americans, meanwhile, will smile politely, knowing that they face no great threat from their Northern neighbour in the global competition to create clean energy jobs.
Environmental Defence is a national organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. Visit: www.environmentaldefence.ca