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Are politicians really standing up for our climate with the Pan-Canadian Framework?

15 December, 2016

Along with many other environmentalists, I found myself torn about how to react to last week’s First Ministers’ Meeting and the release of the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change.

On the one hand, this is the first time that the Canadian federal and provincial governments have agreed to national targets and a framework intended to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions (with the exception of two provinces). There are lots of good things in this agreement, resulting in greenhouse gas reductions of about 85 million tonnes (MT), according to the government’s figures. And one never wants to make the perfect the enemy of the good. 

On the other hand, the Framework falls short on many levels.  It does not live up to what the government promised in the last election. It fails to live up to what science tells us Canada must be doing. And it could mislead the public into believing that Canada is doing its fair share to fight climate change.

Both the Framework itself, and the games played by BC’s Premier Christy Clark during the process leading up to it, demonstrate clearly that Canada needs scientists, and not politicians, to be front and centre in developing its climate policy.

Judging the framework against what we were promised

In addition to promising to develop a national framework on climate change, the Liberal Party of Canada’s 2015 election platform made specific commitments about what would be in that national framework. In the table below, the left-hand column contains a direct quote from the election platform.  The column to the right is my characterization of what we heard in 2016 with the Climate Framework. 

Liberal Party of Canada Election Platform, 2015

As reflected in Climate Framework, 2016

Central to [the national Climate Framework] will be the creation of national emissions-reduction targets, informed by the best economic and scientific analysis. These targets must recognise the economic cost and catastrophic impact that a greater-than two-degree increase in average global temperatures would represent, as well as the necessity for Canada to do its part to prevent that from happening.

We believe that Harper’s targets are inadequate and meaningless without a plan to achieve them. [Emphasis added]

The Climate Framework adopts Harper’s targets. It provides no economic or scientific analysis to justify them, and does not explain how they are consistent with “Canada doing its part.” The targets give every appearance of having been adopted because they are politically feasible.

While the Climate Framework includes actions that will result in emissions reductions, these actions are not enough to show how Canada will achieve the Harper targets – over 20% of the required emissions reductions are to come from unspecified future initiatives. We still do not have a plan to achieve those targets, apparently because agreeing on a plan was not politically feasible.

 

The Pan-Canadian Climate Framework, despite being progress, leaves us without a path to achieving a target that this government correctly dismissed as inadequate. Since making the 2015 election promise, Prime Minister Trudeau signed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, promising to work to keep global temperature increases “well below” 2°C and to “strive” to keep them below 1.5°C.

We are left with the impression that Canada’s politicians would rather be seen by the public as taking climate action than actually doing what is required.

The games politicians play

The impression that politicians can’t be entrusted with achieving scientifically defensible climate action is underscored by the appearance that some of the Premiers – including our own Premier, Christy Clark – were more concerned with scoring political points than achieving a strong climate framework.

The ongoing climate obstructionism of Saskatchewan Premier, Brad Wall, was at least out in the open – although it certainly underscores that scientists, not politicians, should be steering this boat. 

More disturbing was the insistence of Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister that Manitoba would not sign on to the Framework until there was a federal promise of more funding for healthcare

And finally we come to Premier Christy Clark’s mid-meeting walk-out, during which she threatened not to sign the Pan-Canadian Framework if her concerns were not addressed. The extent to which BC Liberal communications around the First Minister’s Meeting seemed to be choreographed in advance seems to support the inference that the Premier’s walk-out was more about positioning herself as a tough negotiator prior to the next provincial election than climate leadership.  However, this requires a bit more explanation, so bear with us.

At 6:24 a.m. PST on the morning of the meeting, Clark set the scene for the day’s drama, tweeting:

Speaking to reporters heading into FMM in Ottawa. A national carbon plan needs to be fair to all Canadians.

The Climate Framework definitely does raise issues of fairness for Canadians. Top among them is the fact that some provinces and some industries are not pulling their weight in addressing climate change. If some industries (and provinces) don’t do their fair share in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, then other Canadians will need to do more if Canada is to do its global fair share (or even to meet the inadequate national target). 

For example, Alberta is the largest provincial source of greenhouse gas pollution in the country – and despite its climate change plan, is expected to increase its emissions until 2020 and then gradually return to current levels by 2030. For the most part, that’s not the fault of ordinary Albertans. It’s the result of the kid-gloves with which greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry are regulated, at least until they reach the province’s “cap” of 100 MT of direct emissions per year (emissions resulting from the eventual use of the fossil fuels don’t count according to this view).

But this is not the fairness issue that Premier Clark was referring to – possibly because that would raise questions about BC’s own climate performance, with our provincial emissions expected to increase until 2030 and with no path at all to achieving our own legislated greenhouse gas emissions.  Indeed, this was one reason that we wrote to Environment Minister McKenna in August asking that the Framework ensure that each province do its fair share

Instead, Premier Clark was concerned that Quebec and Ontario’s plans to achieve significant reductions in their greenhouse gas emissions through a cap and trade system might cost those provinces less than BC’s $30/tonne carbon tax (or the federal government’s proposal of a $50/tonne tax by 2022). Of course, this situation would be much fairer to BC than the status quo – in which some provinces have no carbon price at all. This issue has been raised before in the negotiations, but as recently as September, the Premier did not express concerns about cap and trade when she wrote:

As recognized global leaders in carbon pricing and climate action, British Columbia has established a $30 per tonne broad-based carbon tax and consistently challenged others to join us so that we can move up together in an affordable manner. … We also recognize that others may choose a broad-based cap and trade system - and that’s fine. We recognize either system will achieve emission reductions but what is important is that no matter the carbon pricing system we establish that each of us continue to take action increasing the stringency of the system and we move forward on this together. [Emphasis added]

Premier Clark has explained that her concerns about fairness were ultimately resolved after the Premiers agreed to a 2020 review of the carbon pricing initiatives, and after an addition to an Annex describing BC’s climate efforts.

However, according to Maclean’s magazine it appears that the Premiers agreed to this 2020 review before Premier Clark walked out.

Shortly thereafter, the Premier went back in and apparently managed to get a one-line addition to Annex II in the agreement. The relevant part now reads:

B.C.’s revenue-neutral carbon tax has been in place since 2008. It is set at $30/tonne and covers approximately 75% of the province’s economy. All revenues generated will be returned to tax payers. B.C. will assess the interim study in 2020 and determine a path forward to meet climate change objectives. [Emphasis added]

According to the Premier, this vague line means that BC could “effectively opt out of the annual $10 a tonne increase in carbon pricing once the rest of the country reaches B.C.'s current $30 per tonne price in 2020.” However, in the context of the rest of the agreement, which requires each province to price carbon, the most that this addition would allow would be for BC to switch from a carbon tax to a cap and trade system (and that was probably an option even without this added line).

Indeed, the line in the Annex could also be interpreted to suggest that in 2020, BC will re-evaluate its own progress towards achieving its climate change objectives, with an eye to increasing its carbon tax if more needs to be done. This interpretation would be more consistent with true national fairness.

BC Liberal Twitter accounts were pushing a consistent and polished 'Standing up for BC' message before the Premiers even announced the Framework.
(Photo: Twitter)

Regardless of the Premier’s intention, her communications staff were curiously well prepared with their own spin on the Premier’s performance.  In the first minutes after, and even starting before, the First Ministers’ press conference confirming that the Framework had been signed, a series of tweets from the BC Liberal Party, its Campaign Director, and its Caucus were sent featuring polished graphics and messages which used strikingly similar language - congratulating the Premier on her “tough” negotiating and all referring to her as “standing up for BC".*

None of this means that the Premier did not actually have concerns about the Framework – but it does raise the suggestion that her motivations were not only about good public policy, but also about positioning herself as a “hard as nails” negotiator.

And as long as politicians – not scientists – are driving the process, that’s probably to be expected.

Scientists in the driver’s seat

Responsible governments have long recognized that certain types of decisions require a prominent role for scientists. An important example, for instance, is Canada’s Species At Risk Act. Politicians are not trained to evaluate which species of animals or plants are endangered, and there is a risk that they might choose to prioritize short-term economic gain over the continued survival of a species. Because of this risk, the Species At Risk Act gives the power to designate species as being “at risk” to a scientific committee – the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) – unless the politicians step in and explicitly overrule the Committee.

Climate change is a similarly complicated topic. Politicians do not have the relevant expertise, and the risk of politicians prioritizing short-term economic gain over the health of our atmosphere is high.

A science-based Pan-Canadian Framework would have given scientists – not just politicians behind closed doors – a key role in setting national targets and each province’s share in meeting that target. That approach has been successful in the United Kingdom, where governments set targets based on the recommendations of an expert Climate Change Committee.  We recommended a similar approach in our report, A Carbon Budget for Canada, released last year at the Paris Climate Talks.

The key pieces of a science-based approach include:

  • Carbon Budgets – Translating greenhouse gas targets into short- and mid-term carbon budgets allows easy comparison of federal and provincial targets, makes it easier to define roles and responsibilities, ensures that steady, measured progress is being made, creates transparency around government actions through regular reporting, and facilitates planning efforts;
  • Science Committee – An expert-based scientific committee with representatives appointed by both the federal and provincial governments will provide the best available scientific information to all levels of government in setting greenhouse gas reduction targets, carbon budgets, and in developing plans to achieve those budgets. In addition, the Committee will play a key role in monitoring government progress towards achieving carbon budgets;
  • Planning commitments – Each province, and the federal government, would develop plans, with the help of the Science Committee, on how to achieve the carbon budgets; and
  • Reporting – Each province and territory, and the federal government, would report regularly on its steps to achieve its carbon budgets, and the Science Committee would evaluate their progress.

 

In our view, the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change is the best agreement that we can expect from politicians meeting behind closed doors.

What we need, however, is an even better agreement from scientists providing open and transparent advice and guidance to politicians.

Because we all deserve a healthy atmosphere.

 

By Andrew Gage, Staff Counsel


 

* - At 3:50 p.m. PST, just prior to the close of the First Ministers’ Meeting, Global News reported that Clark would, after all, sign the Framework, tweeting the story at 3:53 p.m. Two minutes later (at 3:55pm), Laura Miller, the BC Liberals Election Campaign Director, retweeted the Global Tweet, with the message: “Tough negotiating tactic from our tough as nails Premier @christyclarkbc. Thank you for standing up for BC.”

At approximately 4:10 p.m. the First Ministers’ press conference began.

Ten minutes later, at 4:20 p.m., the BC Liberal Caucus tweeted a polished graphic applauding the Premier for standing up for British Columbia and crediting her with securing a review in 2020 because, in the carefully chosen words of the graphic, “someone in Terrace shouldn’t pay more than someone in Toronto.” Clearly proud of its work, the BC Liberal Caucus “pinned” the graphic – meaning that it remained the top tweet on the account for several days.

At 5 p.m. sharp, about 50 minutes after the start of the press conference, the BC Liberals tweeted their own graphic, also thanking the Premier for standing up for British Columbia

Clearly pleased with how this message was being received, the BC Liberal Caucus followed up with a further graphic at 6:45 p.m. again using the “stand up” language and highlighting the media commentary that had accepted the Premier’s version of events.