Harper’s made-in-Canada Kyoto plan: concrete or nebulous?

First off: the made-in-Canada plan just shifts targets and baselines. Instead of reducing emissions to six percent below the 1990 level by 2012, Canada will reduce them to 45–50 percent below 2003 by 2050. Not as ambitious as the California plan; but, its few supporters say, it is more realistic.

Of course, the targets and timelines can change, and probably will. The plan released yesterday is similar to what the Liberals offered, in that it avoids the central question: precisely (or even generally) how will we actually achieve these emission reductions? Such details will be determined by yet more consultations.

To mollify the public, the Conservatives have torn a page out of George Bush’s playbook, and attempted a Frank Luntz–esque reframe of the whole issue. Now, instead of greenhouse gases and climate change, it’s clean air. Who could possibly be against that?

The Conservatives shouldn’t fool themselves into thinking that this kind of gambit, by itself, will keep the wolf from the door. It isn’t just Frank Luntz’s rhetorical genius that has enabled George Bush to delay meaningful action on air emissions in the U.S. As soon as he took office, Bush had to deal with the 2001 California electricity crisis. He has had to deal with the extreme volatility in the price of natural gas ever since. Everybody, with the exception of mainstream environmentalists, agrees that now is not the time to phase out coal-fired electricity generation in the U.S (the biggest contributor to air emissions). In light of this, Luntz’s communication acrobatics were essentially a rearguard action, to deflect or dampen criticism of Bush’s reluctance to impose emission restrictions on electric power companies.

(The crazy behaviour of the price of gas is also exactly why the McGuinty Liberals have put off closing Ontario’s coal-fired generating plants and recommitted to nuclear energy. More about this later.)

So Bush has received a tacit and highly qualified pass on the issue of air emissions. However, the emergence of strong state-level initiatives like the RGGI and California’s recently announced emission reduction plan show that the American public is demanding action on the environment.

The Canadian public is similar to the American in this regard. Which means there had better be meaningful emission reductions in Canada—and soon. Rhetorical re-frames work better when they’re based on something more substantial than hot air. Bush had good structural economic reasons for refusing to regulate electric power emissions. Moreover, he has made up for that by providing significant financial support for a new wave of nuclear build in the U.S. power industry.

For the Canadian Conservatives, trying to shift emphasis to air pollution will just confuse people and expose the Conservatives to claims of ineffectiveness (see my October 12 post). So there really is no alternative to just reducing emissions.

And how can we achieve emission reductions in Canada? The first wave of reductions is already underway, in the Ontario electricity sector. So far, nobody has noticed. But they will. Stay tuned.

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