OTTAWA – The federal government says it is determined to have a national climate policy “framework” by the end of Friday’s meeting with the premiers — even if implementation is another matter.
What was supposed to be the triumphant finale to a year of federal-provincial climate negotiations appeared to hit a major bump over the Liberal carbon pricing plan — and not due to loud and predictable objections from Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.
It was B.C. Premier Christy Clark who shoved a hockey stick in the Liberal spokes before the meeting got underway, citing the unresolved matter of comparing Quebec and Ontario’s cap-and-trade carbon market to a national floor price proposed for other provinces.
“It’s got to be a fair deal. And you have to have one price for all Canadians if it’s going to be a national price,” said Clark, who faces the B.C. electorate in a May election.
Clark’s new position appeared to catch the Trudeau government off guard.
The Prime Minister’s Office pointed to a Sept. 26 Facebook post on carbon pricing by the B.C. premier which breezily observed that “others may choose a broad-based cap-and-trade system — and that’s fine.”
The aggressive provincial positioning as the meeting got underway was met with polite federal obstinacy.
“We’ve been very clear that carbon pricing is part of the plan,” federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said in a mid-afternoon scrum with reporters.
Wall has already flatly stated he won’t sign the proffered agreement and Clark was suggesting it might be prudent to “set aside clauses.”
Pressed on whether a deal would emerge, McKenna insisted one would — repeatedly calling it a “historic day.”
“This is a framework. ..,” the federal minister responded when asked what happens if some provinces won’t sign on.
“Then we need to implement. We need to take real action.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had already set the table when he opened the morning session with premiers, indigenous leaders and U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden by asserting, “We should not waver” in the fight against climate change.
Biden, just weeks away from the end of the Obama administration and the ascendency of Donald Trump’s Republicans, gave a rallying speech of sorts before departing the meeting.
“We’re always stronger when we’re working together,” said Biden.
But the promised show of pan-Canadian unity on climate policy was showing strains as the meeting began.
Wall said Ottawa has failed to provide an economic analysis of the biggest tax change in a generation, which he asserts will hammer Saskatchewan jobs and industry.
“We’re being asked to agree to a carbon tax that the federal government admits will cascade through the system for Canadians, and we’re being asked to do it without a full assessment,” he said.
“We’re not signing.”
Wall brandished a heavily redacted Finance Department memo — obtained by a media outlet through an access-to-information request — that says a carbon tax would “cascade throughout the economy and prices would increase most for goods that make intensive use of carbon-based energy.”
And he made common cause with B.C.’s Clark, saying the federal plan will result in a competitive “imbalance” given emitters in central Canada, where cap-and-trade will mitigate emissions, face a lower carbon price than in western Canada.
Clark, too, said she can’t agree to an escalating national carbon price when Quebec and Ontario’s cap-and-trade system would mean lower carbon prices per tonne in one part of the country.
Quebec’s carbon market is currently trading permits for about $8 per tonne, with a forecast the price will rise to $16 per tonne once Ontario’s market is fully up and running with Quebec and California in the Western Climate Initiative.
“At the moment, it’s structured that in the west, the energy-producing provinces, we’d be paying double. Citizens would be paying double what they’re paying in Ontario and Quebec,” she said.
“And you can’t have a national carbon tax where the westerners who produce the energy are paying double what the people in central Canada are paying to use the energy, in terms of an additional carbon tax.”
Clark insisted she wants a deal, including a national carbon price, but described the three-hour window set aside for premiers to finalize the framework as “ambitious to conclude the biggest tax change since I was born, at the federal level.”
It might be more prudent to “set aside clauses (in the framework agreement) where we still need to have more discussion,” she said.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, asked about equivalency, noted other moves already made by her province that have driven down emissions and driven up electricity prices.
“This is about reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” Wynne said before entering the meeting, adding that price is simply a “mechanism.”
“British Columbians are not paying for reductions in Ontario.”
The premiers also want to extract greater health care funding from the Liberal government, but several said they wouldn’t be linking the two crucial issues of climate change and health spending during Friday’s talks.
The backdrop to the long-planned first ministers conference is the looming change of government in the United States.
Biden told the assembled premiers they should take a long view of climate policy, because short-term political changes will be overtaken by reality.
“Whatever uncertainty exists around the near-term policy choices of the next president, I am absolutely confident the United States will continue making progress in its path to a low-carbon future.”