Canada's climate plan is fractured and inadequate: Don Pittis

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has invited the provinces to Paris for the global climate change summit, but Canada's economic plan to fight warming is dangerously fractured.

Provinces will join Trudeau at Paris talks with lots of targets but no way to hit them

French President Francois Hollande walks on the Solheimajokull Glacier, where the ice has receded by more than one kilometre, during a visit in Iceland in October to experience firsthand the damage caused by global warming, ahead of the UN talks on climate change in Paris. (Thibault Camus/Pool/Reuters)

This column is part of a package of special coverage of climate change issues by CBC News leading up to the United Nations climate change conference (COP21) being held in Paris from Nov. 30 to Dec. 11.

The new Liberal government may be heading to the Paris climate change conference with large ambitions, provincial representatives in tow. But in practical terms, Canada's plan to roll back greenhouse gases is fractured and insufficient.

The latest UN climate conference, COP 21, begins Nov. 30 in the French capital. It is intended to create new global targets that will go into effect after 2020 to prevent a two-degree C rise in global temperatures — considered a dangerous tipping point. 

    Figures from Environment Canada show that Canada is failing to meet even its 2020 targets, never mind any new targets to be agreed in Paris.

    Canada's commitment for 2020, under the Copenhagen accord, is to reduce emissions 17 per cent from their 2005 level.

    So far, most Canadian provinces don't even have a structure to put a price on carbon, considered by economists to be the only practical way to stop ever-rising greenhouse gas output.

    ​In some ways Canada is an example of a planet-wide failure, so much so that the United Nations assembles an annual analysis by independent scientists under the title Emissions Gap Report.

    "Unfortunately, the world is not heading in the right direction," said leading climate change economist Andrew Steer in a release on the most recent Emissions Gap Report
    Catherine McKenna, Canada's minister of environment and climate change, greets Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the cabinet swearing-in. She must lead the provinces in finding practical ways to meet emissions targets. (CBC News)

    And according to Chris Ragan, the McGill University economist who heads a Canadian private sector group focused on making climate change work without damaging the economy, it is no surprise.

    "Targets are really very useful for focusing the mind but if you're not going to put policies in place that actively do anything, then you shouldn't be surprised if you don't get to your targets," says Ragan, who chairs Canada's Ecofiscal Commission, funded by several family foundations and industry groups, including Suncor.

    In theory, carbon pricing is not essential, but the alternative, regulation, is cumbersome. Regulations such as those that limit car emissions can work.  But such rules depend on the whim of government, and under the Conservatives at least, federal regulation was ineffectual in meeting targets.

    Economists insist that carbon pricing is the only practical and efficient way to share the cost of fighting climate change fairly across all parts of the economy. Enacting those rules will release the power of business, allowing it to earn a profit by finding ways to cut greenhouse gases.

    So far only three provinces in Canada's fractured system have introduced carbon pricing systems: Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec. Those three are largely incompatible. Ontario has announced it will at some point join the same cap-and-trade system used by Quebec.

    Critics, including former CIBC chief economist Jeff Rubin, have roundly criticized cap-and-trade systems, calling them a "cash grab" that lets governments adjust the rules to take pressure off their favourite industries. But the panel of economists at the Ecofiscal Commission says the important thing is not the system, but the true average carbon price it sets after taking account of complexities and exceptions.

    Too much hot air

    According to The Way Forward, the commission's report published in the spring, the effective carbon price set by Alberta's carbon tax was tiny, just over $1 a tonne. Alberta's new government is reworking the system to make it more effective, but according to Ragan that may only double the effective carbon price.

    The commission's report estimates Quebec's cap-and-trade system prices carbon at $10 a tonne.
    British Columbia's carbon tax is the darling of economists, charging $30 a tonne for carbon across the board, then handing back the revenue in tax breaks. (Reuters)

    The carbon pricing system that is the darling of economists is British Columbia's. With a price of $30 a tonne, it applies to every business and consumer equally.

    All the money collected is returned in lower taxes. Rather than suffering a devastated economy as many predicted, Vancouver, the largest city in B.C., has continued to grow strongly.

    There are two difficulties with the B.C. system. One, businesses that wish to avoid the tax need only move to a province with a low carbon tax, or none. The other is that even $30 a tonne, where the price is frozen until 2018, is only a small fraction of the price needed to prevent a two-degree rise in global temperatures, says B.C. climate expert Matt Horne.

    "Most of the modelling out there for the Canadian context would point to $100, $200 a tonne as the range we have to be targeting," says Horne. "It's not a price you have to hit tomorrow, but you have to be working toward it over a decade."

    In Canada that does not seem to be happening. If Catherine McKenna, the new federal minister of environment and climate change, fails to lead the provinces in creating policies that actually begin meeting Canada's targets, the gathering in Paris will offer little but more hot air.

    Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

    ​More analysis by Don Pittis


    Don Pittis

    Business columnist

    Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.


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