Friday, May 6, 2011

The new realities of Canadian climate policy

A few days ago a Canadian tweeted "A Royal wedding, tornadoes of the century, Osama is dead and we have an election. My head is going to explode!"

Well, the election has come and gone and, as Brian Walsh has noted, the results aren't particularly good for climate policy.
What does the Canadian election mean for environmental and climate policy? As it turns out, nothing very good. I'll explain why in a second, but first of all, there's something you need to know about Canada. Americans like to picture Canada as a progressive, friendly, extremely green and Kyoto Protocol-signing sort of country—and in many ways it is. But the truth is, Canada is also a petrostate. The country has 175.2 billion barrels of oil in reserves, third-most in the world, and it produces 2.6 million barrels of crude oil a day. When we think of foreign oil in the U.S., most of us imagine a Saudi sheik or a Venezuelan despot, but the single biggest supplier of foreign oil to the U.S. is our friendly neighbor to the north. And thanks to the growth of oil sands (or tar sands, depending on how polluting you consider them), petroleum and fossil fuel energy in general has only become more important to the Canadian economy, moving the country's power center to the West, where politicians like Harper hail from.

So Harper's clear victory means you can expect more industry-friendly policies from the now ruling Conservative Party, which is a little bit like Republicans-lite. That also means that Canada will continue its antagonism on the global climate stage, where it has long since abandoned any possibility of meeting its Kyoto carbon reduction targets, not that it was going to happen anyway. (Harper, back in a 2002 letter, referred to the Kyoto Protocol as a "socialist scheme.") Like his ideological counterpart George W. Bush, Harper doesn't seem to have much interest in dealing with climate change or energy, aside from the oil and gas that has helped Canada thrive recently. His position was in stark opposition to the opposition NDP, which offered more support for clean energy and—importantly—was ready to offer a carbon cap-and-trade program. But the Conservatives argued—in very familiar language—that carbon pricing would be increase energy prices and be a drag on the economy. Last night—in a possible example of what Roger Pielke Jr.'s "iron law of climate policy"—the Conservatives won, meaning that for now, carbon pricing in Canada is even less likely than it will be in the U.S.

Canadian climate policy analyst George Hoberg has some suggestions on how to cope.
Nonetheless, the results are in and we need to adapt to the new reality. I recommend focusing on three core strategies:

1. Build a much broader and deeper climate action movement outside the formal political process, focusing on youth. The root cause of the failure of the climate movement is the inability to mobilize sufficient public pressure on government. This effort needs to be intensified.

2. Put pressure on Stephen Harper to deliver cost-effective policies that have a realistic prospect of achieving their near term target of a 17% reduction in greenhouse gases below 2005 levels by 2020. The silver lining in a Harper majority is that he is a man of Alberta, and the leader most likely to be able to convince the oil patch and the Government of Alberta of the need to act. If he is going to be Canada’s Nixon, let him be like Nixon going to China and deliver Alberta and its industry on climate action. We need to promote an effective national dialogue and steer Harper away from his platform’s peculiar focus on command and control regulations and towards a cost-effective strategy to meet his platform’s emission reduction targets. He won’t do this without strong political mobilization (see strategy 1).

3. The one bright green lining in the blue Tory storm is the election of Elizabeth May to the Green Party of Canada’s first seat in the House of Commons. This position will give Ms. May a distinctive opportunity to focus attention on the cause of climate action. This voice of commitment will need support.

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