Hitched to U.S., Canada's going nowhere fast

Blog - Feb. 3, 2010 - By Matthew Bramley

When Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced that Canada's last greenhouse gas emissions target would match the U.S. target of 17 per cent below the 2005 level by 2020 (equivalent to a two per cent increase over the 1990 level) he stated that "Canada and the United States have the same level of ambition and that we will be moving forward in concert with an identical base year and an identical target."

I can think of no other area of policy where Canada's official position is "do whatever the Americans do." So why on climate change?

There's no economic rationale for Canada to slavishly tie every detail of its climate policy to decisions taken in Washington. Serious economic studies (such as the one we commissioned last fall) indicate that Canada can have a much more ambitious climate policy than the U.S. and still enjoy solid economic growth and as much, or more, job creation than under business-as-usual.

The Calgary horizon appears under a blanket of smog. Some business organizations claim that Canada's competitiveness would be seriously damaged if we implemented more ambitious policies than the U.S. But the reality is that only a couple of sectors face the combination of factors (high emissions per unit of production, high trade exposure, low profit margins, and high mobility) that would lead to substantial harm to competitiveness. In our study we identified metal smelting and cement production as examples of vulnerable sectors, but the economy as a whole fared well while meeting ambitious emission-reduction targets.

Although President Obama wants to seriously reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, he's being held back by Congress; a cap-and-trade bill that already fell short of scientists' recommendations is now stalling in the Senate. This makes it even more important for Canada to exhibit real leadership on climate change instead of waiting for U.S. decisions that could face many more delays.

The irony in the federal government's position on matching the U.S. is that, in some key areas of climate policy, Canada has already fallen well behind the U.S. The emerging renewable energy sectors (such as wind power) are now seeing private investment go south of the border because U.S. policies are much more supportive than Canada's. For instance, the U.S. economic stimulus package includes 14 times more money, per capita, than Canada's for renewable energy.

The disappointing outcome of the Copenhagen conference last December shows that the world desperately needs leaders on climate change - countries that can show that it is possible to take the bold steps needed to cut emissions in line with the science.

Polls show Canadians support stronger action to curb carbon emissionsMost Canadians believe that we can show leadership and are embarrassed by the idea that we would completely abandon any independent decision-making when it comes to climate change. Eighty-one per cent say that we should develop our own climate policies, not "harmonize" with the U.S. (Harris-Decima, December 2009). Seventy-seven per cent agree that "it's embarrassing that we are not doing more to curb emissions" (Hoggan and Associates, Spring 2009).

Yet, after four years in power we've seen no evidence that the Harper government actually intends to take serious action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. This raises the question as to whether the policy of "following the U.S." is just another delaying tactic to avoid acting. After all, when the Harper government was first elected, its platform promise on climate change was to develop a "made-in-Canada plan." The 180-degree switch does not inspire confidence as to the government's motives.

Tags:  Climate Policy

Matthew Bramley
Matthew Bramley

Matthew Bramley was with the Pembina Institute from 2000 to 2011, serving as director of the climate change program and director of research.


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