Questions for premiers at the Council of the Federation

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This week provincial and territorial premiers will meet in Winnipeg for the annual Council of the Federation meetings. With the federal government refusing to take any meaningful action on climate change, provinces and territories have the opportunity to pick up the slack and lead.

Here we try to clear up a few questions that premiers might be asking themselves regarding climate change action going into these meetings.

Is this really urgent?

The climate is changing at a faster rate than originally suspected. Recent scientific studies have used words like: unmistakable, hotter than ever and undeniable. Canada must cut its greenhouse gas pollution by at least half in the next 10 years, and find ways to support countries and vulnerable populations that are already dealing with the impacts of climate change.

Climate change is not a distant and intangible problem. The first six months of 2010 have been the hottest on record globally, and last month was the hottest Canadian July on record. Right here in Canada we are seeing the impacts in our vast northern regions, as well as in erratic and changing weather patterns across the country. With the federal government lagging -- the provinces can show great leadership and get Canada on track.

If I lead my province in action on climate change, will I put our provincial economy at risk?

It is untrue that in order to have strong provincial economies, we must accept growing emissions. Case in point: between 1990 and 2008, Québec and Alberta both contributed 18 per cent to Canada's GDP growth. The difference? During this period Quebec's emissions decreased while Alberta racked up more than half of the emissions growth of the entire country. Economic powerhouse Ontario contributed 40 per cent of Canada's GDP growth, and only 10 per cent of emissions rise.

For a great analysis of the geography of Canada's greenhouse gas emissions -- check out this great blog from the Pembina Institute. 

How can provinces lead if the federal government is refusing to act?

Similarly to the Bush years in the U.S. where U.S. states were left to act by themselves, an increasing number of provinces and territories are showing that action on climate change can be beneficial for jobs, the economy and environment. Between them, Ontario and Québec are generating $10 billion in investments in the renewable energy sector. B.C and Québec both adopted, along with 16 U.S. states, the California vehicle standards to force auto manufacturers to produce more efficient vehicles. That pressure on both sides of the border then forced the U.S. and Canadian federal governments to act as well on that issue.

Through collaboration, sharing of information, experiences and technologies, progressive regions can drive Canadian climate policy in the right direction. There is no doubt that Canada as a whole will have to act, and it is of great advantage to be at the front of that the race to a clean energy future.

It also happens that addressing greenhouse gas pollution in most cases falls within provincial jurisdiction or is shared jointly with the federal government. Provinces are responsible for regulating their natural resources and the subsequent emissions and they have the power to tax polluters. Provinces also have responsibility for other key areas that will improve energy efficiency and reduce pollution, for example, building codes and energy efficiency standards.

What if I go ahead and take action and then the regulations federally or in the U.S. change in the coming years.

Any delay means greater costs. Provinces and territories can only benefit from being ahead of the game. When federal regulations are in place provinces will have experiences to share that can help develop federal regulations. Furthermore, as long as provincial regulations are at least as strong as emerging federal regulations -- it is unlikely that they will have to change their approach.

The federal government's most recent line is to sit back and wait for the U.S.

Response number one: If Canada had waited for the U.S. to adopt universal health care, we would still be waiting. Response number two: The U.S. is already doing more than us. Despite holdups in legislation, the Environmental Protection Agency is doing more to regulate large emitters than Canada ever has. The U.S. is also investing 18 times as much (per person!) in renewable energy than Canada.

Which provinces are doing what on climate change -- is it working?

While currently no province or territory is going far enough to combat dangerous climate change, there are some success stories. Check out this briefing from the David Suzuki Foundation and Climate Action Network Canada that outlines this year's top five provincial actions on climate change, as well as five misguided actions. 

In summary:

Top five actions on climate change in the past year

1. Nova Scotia caps power emissions

2. Ontario implements groundbreaking clean energy bill

3. New Brunswick government to build only green certified buildings

4. Manitoba increases efficiency of furnaces and hot-water heaters

5. B.C. carbon tax spurs more clean energy as it increases to $20/tonne

Five best commitments to near-term climate change action

1. New Brunswick shutting down dirty power plants.

2. Québec sets strongest 2020 global warming pollution targets in North America.

3. Territories commit to develop plan to cope with impacts of climate change.

4. Nova Scotia makes wide-ranging clean energy commitments.

5. B.C. will have carbon-neutral government.

Five most misguided moves on climate change

1. Alberta adding another coal plant.

2. Québec and B.C. lack coherence on addressing transportation pollution.

3. Saskatchewan exempts oil and gas production from draft regulations.

4. Ontario delays funding for transit.

5. Manitoba lowers tax on aviation fuel.

So what can premiers do?

Whenever you have high-level government officials together there is potential for significant progress and agreements. At this meeting three years ago premiers decided that climate change would be a permanent agenda item given its urgency and importance.

Here are a few things that premiers can consider doing for this meeting:

1. Agreeing to regulate industrial pollution.

2. Assessing progress on previous promises.

3. Collaborating on joint clean-energy and climate change projects and policies.

4. Establishing a provincial-territorial climate change secretariat.

5. Agreeing to meet again later this year to make progress on climate change.

Hannah McKinnon is the communications co-ordinator with Climate Action Network Canada where she has been working together with over 70 leading non-governmental member organizations in Canada. She can be reached at [email protected].


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