Canada's Liberal strategists seem to be hoping for – and even actively encouraging – environmental issues to simply go away.
It will be hard to avoid. At the end of this year, the world will be gathering in Copenhagen to draft a new plan to combat climate change. As U.S. President Barack Obama has noted, the stakes are enormous.
Obama has made the United States a player in the global negotiations. Canada, however, with one of the worst records in the world on greenhouse gas emissions, has been playing the role of spoiler under the Conservatives, earning us little but scorn internationally.
Will Canada continue to be a laggard as Copenhagen draws near?
It's hard to imagine action without an official opposition pressuring the government. And lately there has been virtually no daylight between newly elected Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff and Prime Minister Harper on the climate change issue, particularly on the major source of Canada's increase in greenhouse gas emissions, the tar sands.
Ignatieff was recently dismissive of a highly critical piece on the tar sands in National Geographic, calling the oil project a unifying issue for Canada.
In fact, close your eyes, and you can't tell whether Ignatieff or Harper is speaking when it comes to climate change. They both say: Ramp up tar sands development as quickly as possible. Oh, and by the way, we'll try to do something, sometime, about all those nasty pollution problems.
This has been the tar sands strategy to date, and it hasn't worked. With three to five times the greenhouse gas emissions as conventional oil, and 11 million liters a day of toxic effluent leaching into local waterways, experts agree there is no way to maintain the growth projections in the tar sands without dramatically increasing pollution.
Thanks to President Obama, the tar sands will soon be hitting the radar screens of both federal and provincial politicians.
Environment Minister Jim Prentice recently admitted the obvious: that with the United States committed to creating a cap-and-trade system for reducing greenhouse gases, the Canadian government will have to abandon its deeply flawed "intensity" targets, which allow emissions to grow with increased production.
The intensity-based plan was custom made to accommodate tar sands growth. But with stronger emissions targets south of the border, the United States will not accept products imported from Canada that do not have to be made under a similarly rigorous pollution controls. The Americans will not abide a pollution haven as their largest trading partner. California already took the first swipe when it approved a low-carbon fuel standard last week.
Government and industry denialists in Alberta and Saskatchewan have been sending letters to Prime Minister Harper warning against a national greenhouse gas strategy.
But given developments south of the border, the Conservatives will likely have no choice but to announce the architecture for a federal cap-and-trade system before Copenhagen. The key question for any province that doesn't have tar sands (in other words, all except Alberta and Saskatchewan) is how this system will be designed.
With a national cap on emissions, if one sector is given preferential treatment that allows it to exceed its fair share of the cap, other sectors will have to pick up the slack so that the country as a whole reaches its target. So if the tar sands are allowed to continue to grow its emissions, another industry and region will have to pay the cost. The biggest loser will almost certainly be sectors like manufacturing and forestry, in provinces like Ontario and Quebec.
The Conservatives have already signaled that they hope to shield the tar sands from having to make serious emissions cuts.
Harper's pitch to Obama for a North American climate pact had a strong emphasis on "energy security," along with a soft threat that the United States cannot afford to live without tar sands oil. Both the pitch and the threat fell completely flat. Despite a major taxpayer-funded PR and lobbying campaign in Washington, Canada has had no influence in the design of the U.S. system, and Obama has not softened his words about needing to reduce U.S. dependence on dirty energy sources.
So Harper is out of step with the hugely popular Obama, and he is poised to drive a wedge between the provinces by giving privileged status to an of out-of-control environmental disaster.
It would seem a perfect opportunity for the Liberals to take center stage. At their convention over the weekend, Liberal Party delegates approved a climate change resolution to push for tougher limits on greenhouse gas emissions and to take a look at a carbon tax, cap-and-trade or a combination of the two. But that doesn't mean Ignatieff will have to follow the plan.
There is an obvious high ground for the Liberals to take: that every sector and every region must be responsible for their fair share of emission cuts.
Yet where is Michael Ignatieff on climate? Apparently running away from the climate change issue, a bit too fast.
(Originally published at The Hill Times)