Can Peter Kent be our Captain Canuck?

Oped - Jan. 12, 2011 - By Clare Demerse

Published in The Toronto Star (Jan. 12, 2011).

Judging by the turnover rate alone, it's clear that being Stephen Harper's environment minister isn't easy for anyone. But for the newest recruit, Thornhill MP Peter Kent, the assignment might be even tougher than usual. That's because Minister Kent took the job just as new U.S. regulations are shining a spotlight on our government's inaction on climate change.

Ever since Barack Obama took office, Stephen Harper's government has maintained that we need to harmonize our climate change policies with the U.S. approach. Earlier this month, the first-ever U.S. regulations on industrial greenhouse gas pollution went into effect, covering new facilities. And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has already announced further phases, to limit emissions from existing oil refineries and power plants. The EPA's approach faces tough political and legal challenges, but the Obama Administration has vowed to protect the agency's ability to regulate.

If you're hoping for a "harmonized" Canadian equivalent to this effort, prepare to be disappointed. Minister Kent has already ruled out matching the U.S. approach. Instead, he said he'll achieve the same outcome — but left the key question of how he plans to do so up to the imagination.

Our brand-new environment minister clearly needs some more convincing answers, fast. We see three ways he could choose to proceed.

The first and best option would be to show bold leadership. Let's call this choice "Captain Canuck," because it requires stepping out from behind the U.S. and crafting a strong climate plan of our own. Canada already has a 2020 target for reducing greenhouse gases, albeit one that falls short of a fair share of the global effort. But it's a target on paper only for now — the government's current policies won't come close to reaching it.

Captain Canuck would publish a credible plan to hit his government's target and get to work implementing it. In the process, he would create clean energy jobs and spur innovation.

Economic studies show that Canada would continue to enjoy strong economic growth while cutting its greenhouse gas pollution, even if we move faster than the United States. Some sectors might need targeted protection if they're truly vulnerable to international competition, but a well-designed policy could accommodate this until the U.S. caught up.

Just in case you have trouble picturing the new Environment Minister in a superhero suit, let's consider a second option. This one casts Canada as an eager U.S. follower, so we'll call it "Copycat."

Canada's first-ever federal greenhouse gas regulations could be considered an example of the Copycat strategy in action. Former minister Jim Prentice held a news conference within minutes of the U.S. announcement of vehicle regulations to state that Canada would adopt the same approach. But because Canadians have traditionally chosen more efficient vehicles than Americans do, the U.S. standard doesn't mean as much here. In fact, according to Pembina's analysis, the regulations may not require anything more than "business as usual" until 2016.

The Copycat approach raises a few other problems, too. The U.S. doesn't have an oil sands industry, so following the U.S. sector-by-sector risks letting our fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas pollution off the hook. If U.S. action isn't strong enough, Canada would miss its own target. And U.S. legislators and regulators rarely design policy with Canada's needs uppermost in their minds.

Despite its serious shortcomings, the Copycat approach would still better than the third option: "Foot Dragger."

A Foot-Dragger strategy would see the federal government announce plans to harmonize with the U.S., but then hope that ambitious climate action in the U.S. never materializes. If the U.S. does act, a Foot Dragger would find excuses why it makes no sense to harmonize this one time. For a Foot Dragger, climate change just isn't a serious problem, and expanding the oil sands industry is a top priority.

Of course the U.S. matters when setting climate policy in our far smaller, export-oriented economy. But it's not the only thing that matters. The advice of scientists, the views of Canadian citizens, and the economic analysis that says we can prosper while cleaning up our energy system should matter too.

If Stephen Harper's government says it's aligned with the U.S., that has to mean following them when they act, not just when they fail to act. But Canada can do better than playing Robin to the U.S.'s Batman: we can choose to design and implement the policies we need to meet our goals. That's what serious countries do in response to important challenges.

We haven't seen a lot of bold leadership on global warming from federal governments in Canada, and Peter Kent's first few days on the job don't offer much hope that this has changed. But maybe our new Environment Minister will surprise us all by finding the courage to try on that Captain Canuck suit.

Clare Demerse is the associate director of climate change at the Pembina Institute, a national sustainable energy think tank.

Clare Demerse

Clare Demerse was the director of federal policy at the Pembina Institute until 2014.


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