To a casual observer it would appear that both Alberta’s government and the federal government have finally turned a corner and not only acknowledged the need for serious action on climate change, but have also begun actually introducing policies that will have a real impact on our emissions over the long term. As can often be the case with government, however, that assessment changes significantly when we take a step back to compare rhetoric with action and try to determine exactly what is being done and for what reasons.
When the Alberta government introduced their Climate Leadership Plan last year, the stated goal was to “bend the curve” on emissions and take Alberta’s proper place as a North American leader on climate policy. The cornerstone of the plan was, of course, the proposed new carbon levy, which will start at $10 per tonne in 2017 and increase to $30 per tonne a year later.
Carbon pricing is increasingly acknowledged as an important tool in the drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and a growing number of jurisdictions across North America are moving to implement some form of carbon tax or cap-and-trade systems to accomplish just that.
Interestingly, however, the Alberta government quickly shifted their language around the carbon tax and the Climate Leadership Plan. Notions of fighting climate change and reducing emissions quickly took a back seat to explanations of how the plan would help secure the “social license” necessary to allow Alberta to build more pipelines and expand bitumen production.
While it is generally understood that a government must work to sell public policy using whatever language and rationale will get it the most support, over time it became clear that Premier Rachel Notley and her government were actually serious about their desire to get new pipelines approved, despite the growing mountain of evidence pointing out that there was no way to build even one more pipeline in Canada and still meet provincial and federal emissions reductions targets.
That sense of doubt around actual priorities versus stated objectives was mirrored at the federal level last week when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced plans to introduce a federal carbon tax to be imposed on provinces that did not have one in place by 2018. The tax will start at $10 per tonne in 2018 (by which point Alberta’s tax will already be at $30 per tonne, so it will have no short-term impact on the province) and rise to at least $50 per tonne in 2022.
Trudeau’s announcement of the tax echoed many of the sentiments expressed by Notley last year, highlighting notions of climate leadership and the need to meet Canada’s international climate commitments. Sadly, he failed to mention that many of the potential benefits of a national carbon tax would be completely off-set by the emissions from the massive new LNG project that his government approved in British Columbia, just the week before.
Notley’s reaction to the federal carbon tax announcement was even more telling. While she supports carbon taxes in principle, she suggested, she would not be willing to support Trudeau’s carbon tax in particular unless the federal government approved at least one new pipeline for Alberta crude. In other words, we will not support your plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions unless you approve new infrastructure that will allow us to increase greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the buzz among political circles and energy industry insiders Notley will soon get her way as Trudeau appears ready to announce federal approval for the proposed expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline: an expansion that will almost triple the amount of diluted bitumen making its way from Alberta to the west coast for export.
Some political commentators have referred to this likely turn of events as a win-win for Trudeau and Notley. Trudeau will get to position himself and Canada on the world stage as a leader in climate action, and Notley will finally get a pipeline built and be able to position herself as a staunch defender of the interests of Albertans and the energy industry.
The only problem is that there is absolutely no win anywhere to be found for the climate and the need to make significant reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions. And wasn’t that what all of this was supposed to be about in the first place? V
Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta. The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute.