Climate change: The 291-megatonne question

The debate on climate change is rife with notions and platitudes, but who here has a plan for cutting emissions by 291 megatonnes?
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau holds a copy of his environmental platform after announcing details of it at Jericho Beach Park in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday June 29, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck


Statements this week from the major parties would suggest that there is a profound disagreement about how to confront the monumental challenge of climate change. And probably there actually is some disagreement here. But this is something of a phony war, less a clash of ideas than a contest of notions.

“Make no mistake,” Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said on Monday, “the Liberal Party will be putting a price on carbon.”

For the Conservatives, this was too much. “Justin Trudeau is proposing a carbon pricing scheme that will increase the costs of everything including gas, groceries, electricity,” Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford and Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq lamented in a joint statement.

For the New Democrats, it was not nearly enough. “The Trudeau Liberals still have not committed to any actual targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” the party’s press office sighed.

Of course, there is a certainly predictability to this—whatever Trudeau announced this week, it was unlikely that either the Conservatives or New Democrats were going to respond with praise. And there might be a certain ideological consistency to the Liberals ending up somewhere between the Conservatives and NDP on a question of policy, if that is what is happening here.

But what do these statements and positions actually amount to? There is much to be said for putting a price on carbon, but it’s not clear what the Liberal commitment would mean in practice—how a Liberal government would devise and enforce a carbon price. Such a price could result in increased costs for consumers, but the cost of the Liberal plan should be measured against the cost of the alternatives, and right now the alternatives are basically unknown. The Conservatives have committed to a target, but without fully explaining how it will be achieved. The New Democrats have committed to a different target, but so far with only the suggestion of a policy that might get the country there.

Lamenting for the state of a particular debate is not quite a novel premise. At least insofar as it is being conducted by people who have reached the legal age of adulthood, we’re already having an “adult conversation” about climate change. But less than four months out from a federal election it’s useful to clarify what the discussion lacks and how it fails.

The debate about carbon pricing in particular is both tortured and torturous.

The Conservatives have managed the neat trick of simultaneously opposing and proposing a price on carbon—while also committing to national targets that will depend, to some degree, on the carbon-pricing policies of the provinces.

Having previously proposed a cap-and-trade system and opposed a Liberal plan for a carbon tax, the Conservatives decided in 2011 that the NDP’s proposal of a cap-and-trade system should be described as a carbon tax and they have since damned both NDP and Liberal suggestions of pricing. But the federal government also engaged with the provinces in 2013 about establishing a carbon levy for the oil and gas industry and last December the Prime Minister invoked Alberta’s levy and said that such a system could be implemented—he described it as a “price”—so long as the American government was willing to harmonize somehow. But it’s not particularly clear why we should have to wait for the Americans.

A price on carbon is also not merely a hypothetical. British Columbia has had a carbon tax since 2008. Quebec has had a levy since 2007 and implemented cap-and-trade in 2013. Alberta recently announced plans to increase its levy, in place since 2007, and the province has commissioned a panel to advise the government on further options. Ontario has committed to implementing a cap-and-trade system. There are meaningful differences between the pricing mechanisms—Alberta’s levy, for instance, pays into a technology fund—but if Ontario follows through on its plans, the four largest provinces will have some kind of a price on carbon. The pricing policies in British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec have already been included in the federal government’s emissions projections and the federal government has based its current international targets for 2030 on the actions of “all levels of government.”

It’s possible that there is debate here somewhere about how to direct the revenue gained from pricing carbon, but that’s not a debate that is actually being had. It’s possible that there is a debate here somewhere about how, and at what level of government, a price on carbon should be set, but nor is that a debate actually being had.

It is true that establishing a meaningful price on carbon will likely result in an added cost for the average citizen. But any kind of regulation to limit emissions will carry a cost—the regulations the government has already imposed will have costs. So too, presumably, will not acting to reduce emissions. And so it’s not of much use to lament that a proposal to price carbon emissions will have costs, unless you have a counterproposal that will achieve the same basic result (helping ward off global catastrophe) for less.

The Conservatives previously committed the country to a 17 per cent reduction in GHG emissions by 2020, but the environment commissioner scolded the government last year for failing to make a plan to reach that target and that goal is now basically unattainable. The Conservatives have now committed that Canada will reduce GHG emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, but there is not, as yet, a comprehensive accounting of how those reductions will be made.

That currently looks like a cut of 291 megatonnes of GHG emissions—from the 815 megatonnes that Canada has projected for emissions in 2030 to 30 per cent below the 749 megatonnes that the government says were emitted in 2005. David McLaughlin and Dave Sawyer have written about what broadly might be necessary to achieve that reduction—including a reliance on provincial governments and the purchase of international offsets by the federal government.

With its climate change accountability act, the NDP has committed to a target of 34 per cent below 1990 levels by 2025—perhaps a cut of 370 megatonnes. (Aiming 34 per cent below the 613 megatonnes of emissions in 1990 establishes a target of 405 megatonnes. And splitting the difference between projections for 2020 and 2030, you get 775 megatonnes.) So far as a plan for getting to that target, the NDP has committed to a national cap-and-trade system, but the precise details have yet to be released.

The Liberals are now committed to “partner with provinces and territories to establish national emissions-reduction targets.” That could conceivably mean a higher target, lower target or the same target. But it could also mean the Liberals won’t commit to a target until after the election.

(It should be noted that the government has, over the last several years, introduced a series of regulations for vehicles, fuels and coal-fired electricity and is promising new regulations for gas-fired electricity and methane from the oil-and-gas sector. And it might be clarified whether the Liberals or NDP would maintain or replace those regulations.)

As an ideal, we might imagine that there would be competing proposals that promised to achieve X at a cost of Y and with a benefit of Z. Arguments could then be had about ambition, achievability and impact. But for the moment we have only promises of X and incomplete answers for Y and Z—accumulated policies and proposals that don’t add up to the goals, costs that can’t be easily compared. And Alberta, a significant part of any potential plan, is now officially an open question.

Notions are not useless. The current debate around income taxes and family benefits, for instance, is based on notions of fairness (and, to a certain degree, the role and ability of the federal government). And even the basic notions currently on offer set up something of a debate on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Voters might judge the parties on how (and how often) they talk about the issue and the party that forms government might end up beholden to voters who expect a certain approach. As a way of doing things, that’s not without merit. Indeed, it could be argued that even with the sort of numbers and calculations that underpin the tax debate, this fall’s vote would still depend more on notions than math. But at least when political leaders talk about taxes there is some math against which one can check those words.

That on climate change we should have more notions than math at this moment is possibly just the culmination of five or 10 or 20 years of only vaguely worrying about a vague future threat. But there is at least the number that this country has told the world it is committed to: 291 megatonnes, to be cut in the next 15 years. Is that achievable and, if so, how? Right now there isn’t a complete proposal, let alone three proposals, for doing so.