The Toronto Star. June 2nd 2014. For years, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has been dragging its heels on climate change, wilfully failing to articulate a credible national policy to cut our dependency on fossil fuels and waiting for the United States to take the lead. Suddenly, that temporizing has become harder to justify.
In the boldest step yet that the U.S. has taken to combat global warming, President Barack Obama’s administration has just rolled out an ambitious but credible program to tackle America’s biggest source of carbon pollution, its heavy reliance on fossil fuels, especially coal, to generate hydro power. The initiative puts Ottawa to shame.
Washington aims to cut planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions from the country’s 1,600 power plants by 26 per cent by 2020 compared to 2005 levels, and by 30 per cent by 2030. American states will be encouraged to invest in renewable energy, embrace efficiency, rely more on natural gas and join carbon-trading markets. Environmental groups hailed it as “powerful,” “momentous” and “historic.”
As United Nations climate official Christiana Figueres put it, Obama’s latest initiative signals to other big polluters, including China and India, that “one of the world’s biggest emitters is taking the future of the planet and its people seriously.” Without concerted action the Earth will warm more than 2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, melting Arctic ice and bringing rising oceans, extreme weather, pestilence, drought, food shortages and untold suffering.
Given the sulphurous atmosphere in Congress, Obama’s bid to tackle the power plant problem faces political and legal challenges from Republicans who claim it will “destroy American jobs” and from some Democrats in coal-burning states. This isn’t a done deal yet.
Still, Obama has signalled his determination to put the U.S. on a credible path to meet the target that Washington and Ottawa both endorsed five years ago. We agreed to cut greenhouse gases by 17 per cent by 2020 from 2005 levels. Phasing out coal will help ensure that the U.S. gets there.
Sadly, Harper’s government is nowhere close to identifying a similar path, much less making headway. The Conservatives profess to be on track to trim emissions by the same percentage as the U.S., but experts scoff at the claim. At the current rate we’d be lucky to get halfway to our target.
Obama’s bold move will further expose and isolate Canada as a climate laggard when world leaders meet in New York in September to discuss how to limit emissions after 2020.
And Harper can now expect to face increasing pressure in the run-up to the 2015 federal election to come clean and admit that he has no intention of honouring our Copenhagen pledge. Or, preferably, to accept the high costs of mitigating the carbon output from our own biggest problem, the fast-growing western oilsands. Otherwise our reputation as an oil and gas exporter will take another knock, hurting prospects for pipelines and future sales.
Recognizing the threat that climate change poses, the UN, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have all urged major polluters to adopt carbon taxes, to phase out fossil fuel subsidies to wean people off coal, gas and oil, and to fund greener energy alternatives. Even major oil firms have called for a “clear, transparent and unambiguous price” on carbon. Yet the Harper government has yet to articulate a credible policy.
Harper has long claimed to want to work collaboratively with the U.S. on climate change. Now is his chance. Washington is taking bold steps to cut pollution from that country’s major source: coal-fired plants. Here in Canada the oilsands are the pressing issue. Rather than play for more time, Ottawa should get serious and come up with a plan.