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Of premiers and pipelines

Protester in Vancouver. Image: William Chen/Wikimedia Commons

In an interview with the National Observer last week, Justin Trudeau raised more than a few eyebrows by comparing B.C. premier John Horgan to former Saskatchewan premier and climate policy obstructionist Brad Wall.

"Similarly and frustratingly," said the Prime Minister, "John Horgan is actually trying to scuttle our national plan on fighting climate change. By blocking the Kinder Morgan pipeline, he's putting at risk the entire national climate change plan, because Alberta will not be able to stay on if the Kinder Morgan pipeline doesn't go through."

All this over a timid proposal by the B.C. government to study the effects of bitumen spills before allowing increased shipments through the province.

Clumsy "guilt by association" attempts aside, I understand what the prime minister is trying to get at. His approval of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion, so goes the reasoning, is part of a grand national compromise. Alberta gets a pipeline (flowing through B.C.) and environmentalists get carbon pricing. Win-win, everyone's happy. Remove one piece of the strategy and the whole thing comes crashing down.

Except that it doesn't. The Alberta government's willing participation -- while preferable -- is not strictly needed. As Trudeau himself admits, "there is a federal backstop that will ensure that the national price on carbon pollution is applied right across the country."

Furthermore, his climate plan was a pretty rotten compromise to begin with. The federal carbon pricing requirement is set to rise to $50 per tonne by 2022, but then it stops. This is not nearly enough to get us to the 30 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that Canada pledged to achieve by 2030 at the Paris climate conference. To meet that commitment would require an eventual price of $200 per tonne (if pursued through carbon pricing alone.) Or, at the very least, a federal government with the political backbone to say no to environmentally destructive fossil fuel projects.

The international community has agreed to limit warming to no more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. That means reaching peak global emissions no later than 2020. Simply put: now is not the time to be building new pipelines.

Nobody suggests shutting down the oil sands tomorrow. But at the very least, at this moment in our history, we must stop moving so aggressively in the wrong direction. If the Trans Mountain pipeline is allowed to go forward, alongside other fossil fuel infrastructure proposals with decades-long lifespans, that would mean sabotaging the meagre gains made by our inadequate federal carbon scheme.

A transformation on the scale required demands bold national leadership. Sadly, beyond a few token half-measures, said leadership has been lacking from Trudeau. It is no ideal solution for the mantle to pass to a provincial premier, but under the circumstances, I don't see what other options we have.

While the Kinder Morgan kerfuffle has gotten very ugly very fast, and will likely only get uglier, Canada is morally obligated to do more than free-ride on international efforts. So let's brace ourselves for the coming ugliness and keep our eye on the prize of climate justice.

Image: William Chen/Wikimedia Commons

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