Harper’s Kyoto dilemma, part II

Carbon taxes, emissions trading, outright fines… these are the most prominent suggestions for reducing Canada’s greenhouse gases (GHGs). It is significant that the prominent people advancing them—Stéphane Dion, Michael Ignatieff, Bob Rae—happen to be Liberal leadership hopefuls, out of government. Hence they can afford to bravely propose taxes or trading schemes or fines. If they were in government, they’d be singing a different tune. I know, because the Liberals were in power for the first eight years following the Kyoto Protocol, and Canada’s response to Kyoto’s requirements couldn’t have been more wishy-washy.

This isn’t because the Liberals are dumb. It’s because of the structure of our federation, the preservation of which is, to a federal politician, more important than honouring a treaty that no one else is really honouring anyway. The Kyoto treaty in its purest form pits Alberta against certain, uh, central Canadian provinces. And federal politicians have learned the bitter lessons of the Trudeau and Mulroney eras: don’t favour Quebec at the expense of Alberta.

Now the Harper Conservatives are grappling with the same basic problem. Alberta emits by far the most greenhouse gases per capita; Quebec among the least. Alberta—if you listen to its political and business elite—hates Kyoto. Quebec, with its gigantic ultra-low-emitting hydroelectric capacity—loves it.

Doing something meaningful to reduce GHG emissions therefore means forcing Alberta oilsands producers, the backbone of the provincial economy, to take a financial hit in one form or another. But Harper has to do something meaningful: Quebec demands it, and Harper needs Quebec votes to turn his minority government into a majority.

No one knows what the Conservatives will come up with, but reading the tea leaves might give a clue. According to recent news reports, the so-called Green Plan II, the sequel to Brian Mulroney’s Green Plan, will, among other things, focus more on reducing air pollution than GHGs.

In a way, this makes sense. What’s more dangerous: air pollution, which harms human respiratory systems, or GHGs, which might warm the planet by a degree or two over the next hundred years?

But in another way, it seems a futile attempt to re-frame the issue. Burning fossil fuels produces many types of air pollution. But it also produces carbon dioxide, the principal GHG. It is possible to reduce the air pollution from burning fossil fuel by using emission control devices. However, these devices don’t remove the GHGs from fossil emissions.

So you’re back at square one. There’s simply no escaping the fact that the best way to reduce both air pollution and GHGs is to use less fossil fuel.

In the area of electricity generation, this means shifting more capacity to low- or zero-emission technologies. In previous posts I have shown that the Ontario Liberals are actually leading the way in this area, with their recently announced recommitment to nuclear generation. Since the Kyoto problem is as much political as environmental, there is room for some window dressing. The Conservatives should therefore increase the Wind Power Production Incentive (WPPI) to at least 2,000 megawatts, and promote it like crazy. No one expects them to do this, and the moral effect could be decisive.

Then, to make the measure truly meaningful, they should extend the WPPI to include nuclear power.

I’ll elaborate in upcoming posts; stay tuned.

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