'Clean hands,' climate change and the problem with saying Canada's not the problem

In his recent messaging on climate change, Peter MacKay has picked up on a theme of the Conservative Party's last federal election campaign: that Canada's emissions amount to a drop in the global bucket.

Peter MacKay's claim that our emissions total is 'minuscule' doesn't really work as an excuse for inaction

Peter MacKay speaks to a crowd of supporters during an event to officially launch his campaign for leader of the Conservative Party of Canada in Stellarton, N.S. on Saturday, January 25, 2020. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

Peter MacKay isn't saying he would do nothing to reduce Canada's greenhouse gas emissions. But he does have a narrow reading of the degree to which Canada shares the blame for climate change.

While MacKay has said Canada has an "obligation" to do "our part," he also has cast doubt on whether Canada can meet its target for 2030. He has twice said that "we're not the problem" and has described Canada's share of global emissions — 1.6 per cent — as "miniscule." His most forceful statement on the issue of climate change so far may have been a colourful analogy involving nudity and organic produce.

Federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer makes a 2019 campaign stop as climate protesters wait outside with their signs in Saskatoon. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

His framing isn't new, of course. Andrew Scheer's climate platform for last year's election prominently included a claim that Canada is a "small contributor" to a global problem — supported by a line graph comparing Canada's emissions to the output of China, the United States, India and the European Union.

But such attempts to downplay Canada's contribution have to contend with both the math of global emissions and the example of one of the country's more successful federal conservatives — Brian Mulroney.

Canadians still among the highest emitters globally

The annual rankings of global emissions are indisputably dominated by a handful of major emitters  But at 1.6 per cent, Canada ranks tenth among all nations in total emissions — more than 183 other countries, including large economies like the United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil and Mexico. Per capita, Canadians are among the highest emitters in the world — producing more than our fellow humans in China and India.

If Canada's totals emissions aren't the problem, then presumably the same can be said for the 183 countries that emit less than we do. But it's also not obvious why any line should be drawn at Canada.

If 1.6 per cent isn't enough to matter, it's also hard to say that Germany (2.2 per cent), Iran (1.9), Saudi Arabia (1.7) or South Korea (1.6) should shoulder much of the burden.

Absolving those nations would leave just five countries to deal with the problem: China (27.2 per cent), the United States (14.6), India (6.8), Russia (4.7) and Japan (3.3).

Chinese boys look at their smartphone in front of their house next to a coal fired power plant on November 27, 2015 on the outskirts of Beijing, China. (Getty Images)

There is no solution to climate change that doesn't involve reducing the emissions from those countries. Together, they represent 56.6 per cent of all national emissions.

But 56.6 per cent is not 100 per cent. If the other 188 nations of the world absolve themselves of their responsibility, that leaves the other 43.4 per cent unaccounted for.

It's also worth noting that other countries are already ahead of Canada in reducing their emissions. No one is asking Canada to go it alone.

There are other arguments for MacKay to contend with here, too.

The price of passing the buck

If every tonne of carbon emissions has a negative impact on the environment — a reality reflected in a measure known as the "social cost of carbon" — then doesn't it make sense to account for that harm, or restrict it?

Would stronger domestic emissions policies not do a better job of positioning Canada to compete in a low-carbon economy, as Justin Trudeau's Liberals have argued?

And what about the threat of carbon tariffs? In the future, countries could begin to impose border charges on goods that originate in jurisdictions that fail to enforce stringent climate policies. Members of the European Union, for instance, have threatened to apply such tariffs on American products in response to President Donald Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris accord.

The Canadian Steel Producers Association has now asked the federal government to consider "carbon border adjustments" as part of a plan to get the domestic steel industry to net-zero emissions by 2050.

Ultimately, there's also the basic moral argument: today's leaders and citizens owe it to future generations to do what they can to limit or avert the damage caused by climate change.

Crowds march on the Alberta legislature for a climate rally addressed by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg on Oct. 18, 2019. (Emilio Avalos/CBC)

The Conservative Party's turn toward worrying about "global emissions" last year seemed to follow from an unwillingness to propose alternatives to the Trudeau government's domestic policies — in particular the federal carbon price.

Perhaps realizing that whatever plan they pitched to reduce Canada's emissions would carry an economic cost equal to or greater than the Liberals' approach, the Conservatives pivoted to the notion that Canada could help other countries cut their emissions, and get credit for it — at no cost to Canadian consumers.

At the very least, it's not clear why Canada couldn't do both — by taking sufficient action to meet our own targets while also offering to help other countries meet theirs.

It's also fair to ask whether those two things are, in fact, connected — whether reducing our own emissions would put us in a better position to pressure other countries to do the same.

U.S. President George Bush gives a thumbs-up while meeting with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in Ottawa in this 1990 file photo. Bush's administration signed the acid rain accord with Canada in 1991. (Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

Thirty-five years ago, Brian Mulroney wanted both Canada and the United States to reduce the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions that were causing acid rain to fall on both sides of the border.

American officials were reluctant to act, but the prime minister still went ahead with domestic action — negotiating a deal with provincial governments and industry to reduce the emissions from Canadian facilities.

"I believe you clean up your own act first before you can expect major concessions from someone with whom you are bargaining," Mulroney said at the time.

Years later, Mulroney argued that his "clean hands" approach was not merely "the right thing to do" — it undercut American doubts about Canada's motivations, he said, and gave Canada "moral leverage" in its discussions with the United States.

Canada's role in creating the acid rain threat was perhaps more straightforward than its role in climate change, and it may have been easier to convince our closest ally to join our efforts.

But four months ago, Mulroney cited his own approach in the context of global climate change and the responsibility of Canadian leaders.

Reading aloud from a recent media report, Mulroney noted criticism of Canada's climate targets and the fact that Canada's per-capita emissions were second among the G20.

"So, what are we, as Canadians, to do?" Mulroney asked. "Lead."




Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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