Originally published in the Vancouver Sun December 14, 2009
At the Copenhagen climate negotiations, environmentalists from Canada and abroad repeatedly vilify the Canadian government for refusing to adopt an aggressive target that would require an eye-popping 50 per cent reduction of our greenhouse gas emissions in just 10 years. As my grandmother used to tell me: "Be careful what you ask for."
At Kyoto in 1997, environmentalists likewise urged the Canadian government to adopt aggressive targets that matched those of Europe, even though European emissions had recently plummeted with the rapid closure of coal-burning plants in eastern Germany and the U.K.
Even when subsequent independent analysis showed that achieving Canada's Kyoto commitment would require a carbon tax or emissions permit price of $150 per tonne of CO2 (equivalent to an immediate jump in gasoline prices of 40 cents per litre), environmentalists insisted on Canada ratifying the Kyoto Protocol.
In 2002, the Chretien government complied, ratifying Kyoto to loud applause from environmentalists. But those who were close to Chretien now publicly admit the government had no intention of passing the compulsory (hence politically difficult) emissions pricing policy and technology regulations that were essential for achieving the target.
An aggressive commitment effectively resulted in policy paralysis.
Environmentalists do not seem to have learned anything from this experience. Their criticisms of Canada's emissions target -- a 20 per cent reduction from 2006 levels by 2020 -- may yet convince the Harper government to follow the Chretien strategy of adopting an unattainable target.
Perhaps the resulting plaudits from environmentalists will be just enough to push the government's popularity into majority government territory. (Upstaging even the benefits of playing piano with Yo Yo Ma.)
Loudly criticizing governments for not setting unattainable targets might seem like an attractive strategy for environmentalists. But if they really want Canada to contribute to the global response to the climate risk, they should consider switching their focus to the more mundane task of critiquing our climate policy, or lack thereof.
Since gaining power over three years ago, the Harper government has repeatedly promised to implement effective climate policy, but actually has done nothing.
What it should have done is very simple. Canada desperately needs an economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions cap with tradable permits issued by government.
The cap should not be too constraining at first, but it would be tightened in accordance with the commitments of other countries and with consideration of Canada's particular circumstances (the fossil fuel intensity of our economy, our rate of population growth, etc.). If the government were serious about its own targets, it would simply set the cap to match its emissions commitment for 2020.
The trading price of the emission permits would make it increasingly expensive to emit greenhouse gases, thus having the same effect as British Columbia's carbon tax.
This would affect technology choices over the coming decades for industrial processes, buildings and vehicles. It would gradually reduce our emissions at a modest economic cost.
The policy can be designed so that there is no transfer of wealth from fossil fuel rich regions to other parts of the country, thereby avoiding another federal-provincial crisis.
The policy I am describing is identical to the one suggested earlier this year in the report, Achieving 2050, by Canada's National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, an advisory body whose members were appointed by the Harper government.
Getting this policy in place is a thousand times more important than setting unattainable targets for 2020. Moreover, as soon as the policy is in place – even at a modest cap initially – we will begin to learn more about what greenhouse gas reduction is really costing our economy, while scientists continue to learn more about the character and magnitude of the climate risk. If we do need to intensify our efforts in future, it is relatively easy to tighten the cap, just as the European are doing with the cap they have already implemented and as Americans are determining through discussions between the US Congress and the US Environmental Protection Agency for their proposed cap.