Photo: One week in Quebec City

Credit: Renaud Philippe

By Steve Kux, Communications & Research Specialist

The year 2015 will be remembered as an important one in the global battle against climate change. With the international community set to meet in Paris in December to establish clear targets and methods to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the conversation in Canada is getting louder. The clock is ticking and Canadians are demanding action on climate change on an unprecedented scale.

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On April 11, Quebec City was the setting for that conversation as 25,000 people took to the streets to demand action from Canada's premiers in the largest climate-oriented march in Canadian history. The march was less than two weeks after Canada's failure to submit a climate action plan to the UN by its March 31 deadline in advance of the Paris Summit. The message from the crowd was clear: Canada's leaders must do more to address this issue. On April 13, business and environmental leaders reinforced this notion when they met for the Canadian Roundtable on the Green Economy. The David Suzuki Foundation played a major role in organizing both the climate march and roundtable discussions.

Provincial politics in Canada have begun to reflect the growing consensus that something needs to be done. Alberta began taxing carbon pollution from its largest emitters in 2007. British Columbia enacted a broad-based provincial carbon tax on major emissions in 2008. Beginning in January, Quebec entered into a cap-and-trade agreement with the state of California. Just two days after the rally in Quebec City, Ontario announced it would also cap and reduce emissions. When Ontario officially joins Quebec's carbon market, 86 per cent of Canadians and 86 per cent of national GDP will fall under the jurisdiction of a carbon price. It is important to note that each of these measures represents only a starting point in terms of action needed.

Even with these commitments, much work remains if Canada is to rein in its greenhouse gas problem. Alberta and Saskatchewan continue to lead the country in carbon emissions, thanks largely to the absence of a strong market-based carbon price that would drive cleaner technologies and energy use in the oilsands, chemical and electricity sectors. Alberta's carbon tax is weaker and less transparent than B.C.'s and only applies to a subset of emissions, while Saskatchewan has no carbon price at all despite promises to enact regulations years ago. Nova Scotia has set a hard cap that is driving down emissions from coal-power plants while shifting to renewable energy. With action in mind, premiers from across Canada met in Quebec City on April 14 with the aim of strengthening commitments to act on climate change. Alberta and P.E.I.'s premiers did not attend. B.C. Premier Christy Clark joined by telephone.

The results of the premiers' meeting were mixed. While leaders from Quebec and Ontario advocated for a market-based cap-and-trade system to reduce emissions and prioritize clean energy, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall pushed for Canada to invest public dollars in coal-power technology that would make coal burning cleaner, but he opposed the more economically efficient market-based approach that Ontario, Quebec, B.C. and Alberta have favoured.

The problem with this debate is its assumption that climate action is an "either or" concept. Investing in new technology without first tackling the root problem of emissions is tantamount to building a garden without planting any seeds. Canada must wean itself off fossil fuels while investing in cleaner technologies. Money generated by carbon pricing is often used for that. As investment leads to more efficient energy generated from renewable sources, the price of power falls and the need for dirty power sources declines.

As events in Quebec City show, momentum is building. Canadians want action on climate change and Ontario's recent commitment to cap-and-trade could be the tipping point the country has been waiting for. A recent poll suggests that as many as 75 per cent of voters support a cap-and-trade carbon price at the national level. At the end of their summit, Canada's premiers called on the federal government to take a leadership role in the national and international conversation on climate change. In an election year, federal party leaders must recognize that public opinion is firmly on the side of action.

April 28, 2015

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