Canada finally has a plan to meet its climate target — and maybe now there can be a real debate

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson is not an objective analyst of federal climate policy. But his analysis of the Liberal government’s announcement on Friday was not entirely fanciful.

“This is a day on which I think Canadians should be proud,” he said in an interview with CBC News on Friday morning, shortly before he stood with the prime minister in front of some trees at Ottawa’s Dominion Arboretum and announced a sweeping update to the Liberal government’s climate plan.

“Because this is the first time Canada’s ever had a plan that is being proposed that shows how we will not only meet, but we will exceed the targets to which we have committed internationally.”

Whatever pride Canadians might feel, Wilkinson no doubt hopes that a lot of it is directed at himself and the government he serves. As for the mere act of coming up with a plan to accomplish something this country has promised to do — surely that’s the very least a government is expected to do.

But the minister is also correct to point out that this is the first time any federal government has actually done so. More than 30 years after Canadian governments started making international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there is now an official path for Canada to meet one of those targets.

Better late than never?

“I think the big takeaway here is that, for the first time, Canada has a plan and with policy action that is consistent with ambition,” said Dale Beugin, vice president of research and analysis at the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices.

In that respect, the Liberal plan can be viewed simply as an explanation of what it will take to get it done — a reckoning with what many Canadian political leaders and voters have said they want.

In doing so, it could finally set up a clear debate about whether Canadians actually want to do their part to combat global climate change, whether any party can offer a more appealing plan for doing so — and perhaps what it would take to do even more.

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, left, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Much attention will be paid to one particular piece of the plan — the increase in the federal carbon price — and that piece is significant. But the 78-page document presents 64 “new measures” and $15 billion in federal investment, including an overarching commitment to “integrate climate considerations throughout government decision-making.” Its breadth is worth noting for what that says about how all-encompassing the effort of moving to a low-carbon economy could be.

Not all of what the Liberals would like to do is firmly established. There are several commitments to “work with” provinces and sectors of the economy to develop policies in a number of areas — from building supplies and fertilizer to farming and interprovincial power grids.

But the Liberals estimate that the concrete elements of their plan — when added to the federal and provincial policies that already have been implemented over the last decade — would reduce Canada’s total annual emissions to 503 megatonnes by 2030, pushing this country past its commitment to reduce emissions by 30 per cent below the level of 2005.

How the political climate has shifted

Further possible reductions and an ambitious target for 2030 would be committed to after discussions with the provinces. All of that would, ideally, put Canada on a path to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

The key to reducing emissions will be the federal carbon price. Already the most politically controversial element of the existing Liberal plan, it is now set to increase by $15 per tonne each year between 2022 and 2030. That was the headline item from Friday’s package — and perhaps the fact that any party, let alone the one in government, would be willing to propose such an increase shows how much the conversation on climate policy in Canada has shifted.

As recently as 18 months ago, it wasn’t clear that the Canadian public would accept any explicit price on carbon. The Conservative Party clobbered the Liberals in 2008 with warnings about Stephane Dion’s “job-killing carbon tax” and they were trying to do the same to Justin Trudeau in the 2019 election.

Then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer delivers a speech on the environment in Chelsea, Que. Wednesday June 19, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

But in last year’s campaign, it was the Conservative climate platform — which lacked a price on carbon and would have resulted in higher emissions — that emerged as the more significant political weakness. When all the ballots were counted, 63.3 per cent of Canadians had voted for a party — the Liberals, Bloc Quebecois, NDP or Greens — that supported putting a price on carbon.

Wilkinson is familiar with that math and cited it on Friday morning while explaining why he thinks the public will approve of his government’s approach. “My view is Canadians actually understand that this is an important and thoughtful component of climate policy,” he said.

Wilkinson also came prepared with other arguments: that almost every economist will tell you pricing carbon is the most efficient way or reducing emissions, that a price on carbon offers an incentive for innovation and — crucially — that it also can be implemented in a way that is “affordable” for Canadians.

Waiting on the Supreme Court

Revenue from the fuel surcharge will continue to be returned to Canadians in rebates, now on a quarterly basis. As the parliamentary budget officer confirmed in 2019, the vast majority of Canadian households receive more from the rebate than they pay out in extra costs.

Even while nearly two-thirds of Canadian voters were siding with a price on carbon, the provincial governments in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario continued their legal challenge of the federal carbon price. If the Supreme Court rules against the federal government, the Liberals will have to adjust their approach.

But even if the federal proposal prevails, there is no guarantee that the conservative premiers in those provinces will give up the political fight — particularly now that the price is set to continue increasing.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole. The Conservatives’ criticisms of the new climate plan on Friday focused less on the policy and more on how it was drafted. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Erin O’Toole’s federal Conservatives quickly registered their displeasure — though their criticism curiously focused not on the substance of the policy but on a lack of consultation and the supposed sanctity of provincial jurisdiction. The usual opponents of climate action will also bark.

However much the global economy, governments in other countries and the public mood in Canada may have changed course, there is a reason why even proponents of ambitious climate policy were describing the Liberal move on Friday as “brave.”

The Liberals have other things to talk about on climate policy — easier things like investment and direct job creation. But they seem content to fight on the ground of pricing carbon. Perhaps putting a price on carbon has become a mark of credibility.

Either way, the Conservatives now have an opportunity to explain what they’d do differently — and whether they could meet Canada’s international commitments without adopting some of the policies they have criticized. For the New Democrats and Greens, there is a chance to show exactly what going even further would involve.

For years, the debate around climate policy in Canada has relied on magical thinking — the belief that targets could be set but only half-heartedly pursued, that targets could be met with relatively little effort, that whatever needed to be done could be done later, or by someone else. But the planet is quickly running out of time for magic.

In recent polling commissioned by Clean Energy Canada, 66 per cent of respondents said they wanted Canada to be among the most ambitious countries in the world when it comes to climate policy. Achieving that status surely begins with reaching Canada’s 2030 target.

If Canadians do want to pride themselves on their commitment to combating climate change and creating a cleaner economy, they finally have a better idea of what that might really look like — and a chance for a real debate about how, or whether, this country is going to carry its share of the burden.

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