Premiers say they want a 'co-operative' approach to climate policy. Are they serious?

Premiers opposed to the federal government's climate change strategy have decried what they call Ottawa's reliance on 'threats' over 'co-operation.' But the math shows the provinces might struggle to come up with a credible climate strategy on their own.

Premiers' criticisms of carbon pricing mask the tensions within their own coalition

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, second left, hosts a Stampede breakfast with visiting premiers, left to right, Doug Ford of Ontario, Blaine Higgs of New Brunswick, and Scott Moe of Saskatchewan, in Calgary, Monday, July 8. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

If Justin Trudeau had been feeling mischievous on Monday night, he might have called up Jason Kenney and made the Alberta premier an offer: if the 13 provincial and territorial premiers could, after their meetings this week, explain how they would collectively meet Canada's 2030 target for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, the federal government would repeal the national carbon price.

Given the vehemence of their opposition to that carbon pricing policy, presumably at least some of those premiers would be hard-pressed to refuse such an offer.

But then, they'd have to actually come up with a plan for 2030.

"My hope is that the current federal government returns to its initial promise of a co-operative approach to federalism. None of us, nor do our citizens, appreciate a message that it's either Ottawa's way or the highway," Kenney said on Monday afternoon in Calgary, where he had convened the 'Gang of 5' — himself, Ontario's Doug Ford, Saskatchewan's Scott Moe, New Brunswick's Blaine Higgs and Bob McLeod of the Northwest Territories — for a show of political and ideological strength before the actual meeting of the Council of the Federation in Saskatoon.

'Co-operation' vs. 'threats'

"I think all provinces and territories at this table have been prepared to work with Ottawa on reducing carbon emissions and greenhouse gas emissions and constructive solutions to the challenge of climate change, but in a way that does not impair economic growth," Kenney added. "So rather than threats, we would prefer co-operation."

Typically, when premiers refer to "co-operation" with the federal government, they mean "money," flowing freely from the federal government into provincial accounts.

But the larger message of the challenges against federal climate policy launched by Kenney, Moe and Ford — and supported by Higgs — is that the federal government should leave it to the provinces to cut emissions.

"None of us are denying climate is changing, dramatically, in Canada and throughout the world. And every one of us is focused on meeting our emissions targets," Higgs said near the end of Monday's news conference. "The only strategic difference here is that we believe we can do so not through taxing people more, but through innovation."

Here is where the math on provincial climate autonomy begins to look wobbly.

A highway loops around a tailings pond at the Syncrude facility as seen from a helicopter tour of the oilsands near Fort McMurray, Alta., on July 10, 2012. between 2005 and 2017, emissions in Alberta and Saskatchewan increased by 18 per cent and 14 per cent, respectively. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

As Higgs noted on Monday, his province is committed to reducing its emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, in line with Canada's national target. And New Brunswick has nearly achieved that goal already — through 2017, the province's emissions had declined 28 per cent.

If Higgs could convince his allies to match his province's targeted and actual reductions, the Gang of 5 would have the makings of a real interprovincial plan to combat climate change.

But neither Alberta nor Saskatchewan is operating with a provincial target for 2030 (Manitoba also lacks a 2030 target). More important, between 2005 and 2017, emissions in Alberta and Saskatchewan actually increased by 18 per cent and 14 per cent, respectively.

Both provinces, of course, are heavily dependent on emissions-intensive resource development. As a result, the likelihood of either province agreeing to reduce its emissions by 30 per cent — or of even being able to reduce their emissions by that much in that timeframe — is effectively nil.

That's not necessarily a problem, as long as some of the other provinces are willing to reduce their emissions by more than 30 per cent — particularly Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.

Ontario's 'fair share'

For a while, all three of those provinces were committed to doing more. Quebec is still committed to reducing emissions by 37.5 per cent below 1990 levels and British Columbia is aiming to reduce emissions by 40 per cent below 2007 levels. But under Premier Ford's direction, Ontario has backtracked.

Under Kathleen Wynne, Ontario had pledged to match Quebec's target: 37 per cent below 1990 levels. But the Ford government has opted to set a new target in line with the national commitment: 30 per cent below 2005 levels.

The Ford government describes this as Ontario's "fair share." But that only puts more pressure on Kenney and Moe, the two premiers seated to Ford's left in Calgary on Monday.

The united front of the anti-carbon-pricing gang conceals those significant internal tensions.

Negotiating a national plan with an emphasis on provincial autonomy inevitably would run up against such differences. Indeed, Canada's ability to set a responsible national target — to meaningfully contribute to the global effort to combat a global threat — could be hamstrung.

Focusing on national standards for climate policy has at least allowed the Trudeau government to avoid a fraught discussion about dividing up responsibility between the provinces.

Still, if Kenney's crew wanted to mount a serious response to the federal carbon price, it could start by squaring the tensions within its own coalition and presenting a plan for putting Canada on track to meet its 2030 target. (How they would do so without a broad carbon levy, and without imposing even higher economic, public or consumer costs, would be particularly interesting to see.)

Failing that, we are left to wonder whether this fight between Trudeau and "the resistance" is less about carbon pricing or provincial autonomy — and more about how hard Canada should try to meet its international commitment to fight climate change.


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.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?