MPs fill House with stale emissions of climate change debate

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna intends to see Canada reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as the previous Conservative government had vowed. And so she found herself condemned twice over on Monday afternoon.

Commons sketch: Conservatives condemn Liberal plan to meet Conservative target

Environment Minister Catherine McKenna answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Monday, September 19, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Whatever she has said about setting her sights somehow higher, Liberal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna now says she intends to see Canada reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as the previous Conservative government had vowed. At least until 2030. And probably that will involve something like a carbon tax.

And so McKenna found herself condemned twice over on Monday afternoon.

New Democrats are saddened the federal government is not aiming to achieve a better target.

Conservatives are upset the federal government might actually try to meet the Conservative target.

'A made-in-Ottawa carbon tax'

The latter, granted, is merely an inference. Officially, the Official Opposition is appalled at the thought of a price on carbon. And that the federal government would dare to implement such a thing.

"Mr. Speaker, the Liberals have now confirmed that they plan to impose a made-in-Ottawa carbon tax on all Canadians," Conservative MP Mark Strahl said to the House.

"Why are the Liberals in Ottawa threatening to force the government of B.C. to raise taxes on British Columbians?"

So possibly Strahl would be less aggrieved if the nation's capital was in some other city.

But, regardless, the environment minister stood and attempted to defend her intentions.

"We understand that the environment and the economy go together," she said. "Right now, 80 per cent of Canadians live in a jurisdiction where there's a price on carbon.... And we understand, and we know, that carbon pricing is the most efficient way to reduce emissions and to foster innovation."

Strahl was unconvinced.

"When Liberals in Ottawa threaten to increase carbon taxes on B.C. employers, they threaten billions of dollars of investment into the economy — money that will pay for hospitals, schools and provide thousands of family-supporting jobs," Strahl explained.

This suggests a rather stark choice between dealing with climate change and continuing to have decent hospitals. And if those are the stakes, it is to wonder why Strahl's side committed Canada to the climate target the Liberals are now interested in achieving.

"Mr. Speaker, the member opposite might not understand that B.C. has a carbon tax and it is revenue neutral," McKenna replied, "so B.C. actually returns the revenues to its citizens."

She proceeded to report the supportive comments of executives from Suncor and Dutch Shell.

'A market mechanism'

The Conservatives — who have taken several positions on pricing carbon over the past decade — proceeded to send up three more MPs to voice similar laments

"Carbon taxes raise the price of everything from filling up the gas tank to buying groceries to heating homes, and they kill jobs," declared Jason Kenney, whose campaign for leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives apparently includes a few more days as an MP in Ottawa.

"I was very surprised that the member opposite, who I thought would believe in free-market economics, would understand that carbon pricing is a market mechanism," McKenna came back.

The Conservatives howled at the minister's choice of economic terminology (meant to distinguish a carbon tax from government regulation).

"That is the best way to reduce carbon pollution and innovate — but perhaps he does not believe in climate change and that might be the problem," McKenna concluded.

Book-ending these cries of carbon tax were New Democrat statements of disappointment.

"Why is the government now breaking its promise to the world and to future generations of Canadians?" wondered NDP MP Linda Duncan. "Why is it backtracking?"

A gaseous debate

Target-setting has never really been this country's problem. It is doing what is necessary to reach those targets that has so far eluded us.

And it is the only standing proposal to significantly reduce emissions — that is, to put a price on carbon — that is still being debated in a vacuum.

Stephen Harper's government last pledged to reduce emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, without explaining how such a reduction might be achieved, but condemning any suggestion of doing so via a price on carbon. 

To this, the New Democrats said they would cut emissions by 34 per cent below 1990 levels by 2025, but without explaining precisely how (except to say that there would be a cap-and-trade system).

The Liberals, loath to be heard saying the words "carbon tax" out loud, suggested they would put merely a "price" on carbon, but otherwise committed to no target.

The result now is a newly gaseous debate. A carbon tax is condemned, but without a full explanation of any alternative. Deeper reductions are called for, but without any counter-proposal for reaching that target.

(The Greens, it should be noted, committed to both a target and a price on carbon. Their hope of a 40 per cent reduction below 2005 levels by 2025 and a price on carbon rising from $50 per tonne to $200 per tonne is at least a fun point of reference.)

But, of course, McKenna herself had described the Conservative commitment as the "floor" for Liberal ambitions. And so this does seem to feel a bit like settling.

"Let us be clear about the Harper target," McKenna said with her final intervention on Monday afternoon. "The Harper government had absolutely no plan to reach the target. That is not what we are going to do."

That sounds like an improvement. But then, by the government's own words, that would seem to be just about the least that should be expected of it.

After that, we can start worrying about what the next target looks like.


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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