Opinion: Yelling won’t help Canada’s climate plan

You wouldn’t know it from the way they’re yelling at each other over Justin Trudeau’s new climate plan right now, but here are two things about climate change that the federal Liberals and Conservatives can actually agree on: Canada needs to move to a low-carbon economy – and the “invisible hand” of the free market won’t be enough to get us there.

Taken together, those two points of agreement have the potential to open the door, at the very least, to some concrete policy steps that should reduce our emissions and boost the economy at the same time.

When the Liberals tabled legislation earlier this month that would lay out a path to a “net-zero” economy by 2050, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole told Trudeau he supports the end game and is ready to work with him on the bill.

That’s the legislative foundation for a productive conversation between the two parties that have been raging at each other for years over global warming.

O’Toole has some strings attached. His party’s support is contingent on the legislation helping industry, particularly oil and gas. But if reasonable minds prevail, that shouldn’t be a bridge too far for the Liberals.

Common ground on how to actually cut emissions is harder to find. But just as agreement on the net-zero legislation gives them an understanding on the end point, the parties are also starting from some of the same places: government orchestration of supply and demand for energy, clean and not-so-clean.

“I’m not a believer in the invisible hand. I don’t think Adam Smith got it quite right,” Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said this week in an editorial board meeting where he explained his government’s new plan to cut emissions dramatically by 2030.

The invisible hand of free-market forces needs a helping hand from governments, he joked.

There’s no doubt that markets are doing some of the heavy lifting. Big institutional investors have thoroughly absorbed the idea that countries around the world are getting serious about cracking down on greenhouse gas emissions. Billions of dollars are shifting quickly away from polluting industries into parts of the global economy that are more carbon-neutral.

As a result, large emitters in Canada are actively touting their environmental credentials and adopting new technology.

But meeting Canada’s targets for 2030, let alone attaining net-zero emissions by 2050, requires more than market pressure, Wilkinson says.

The 2030 climate plan has controversial carbon pricing as its centrepiece, but it also contains billions of dollars in incentives for large emitters, startups, the auto sector and homeowners alike to jump on the clean-energy bandwagon.

The Liberals’ new climate plan is as much an industrial strategy and economic development strategy as it is a plan to reduce emissions.

But don’t look to the Conservatives for a more hands-off approach. While they are busy loudly denouncing the Liberals’ consumer-oriented carbon pricing regime, they are also quietly but clearly signalling that they want to impose measures of their own if they get into power.

“Conservatives know that protecting our environment is critical. We agree with the goal of reaching net zero by 2030. Let’s protect our environment and natural spaces,” O’Toole states in a polished tweet this week, his main way of communicating the broad strokes of his policy.

His party has signalled support for the concept of a clean fuel standard – something the Liberals are on the cusp of rolling out this week after years of consulting with industry and fighting with Conservatives. While O’Toole may not like every detail the Liberals propose, he won’t attack the idea of using government regulations to control how polluting our fuels are, party insiders say.

The Conservatives are still dead-set against what they call a carbon tax on consumers though. Ratcheting up the carbon levy right now, during an unprecedented recession, is not affordable, they argue. And it puts the burden of cutting emissions on people who live in the suburbs, rural Canadians and soccer moms driving their kids here and there – all key demographics for the Conservative voting base. Plus, the Conservatives argue in a nod to their premier-allies, it intrudes on provincial jurisdiction.

But what would they do instead? It’s not clear yet. They have suggested they want to target large emitters and make them carry a bigger burden than consumers when it comes to cutting greenhouse gases. But that means taking on the oil and gas industry, which is also a key source of support for the party.

Having ruled out anything that looks like a carbon tax, the Conservatives have fewer tools than the Liberals to push aggressively for a low-carbon economy. Yelling at Liberals won’t close the gap.

Heather Scoffield is a National Affairs writer.