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John Ivison: Scheer climate plan gives voters what they want — expressions of concern with no actual cost

John Ivison: Scheer climate plan gives voters what they want — expressions of concern with no actual cost
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It should come as no surprise that the new Conservative climate plan is a Potemkin village of a policy, designed to give the impression of solidity to a fake, precarious construction.

That’s because Andrew Scheer is giving voters what they want: expressions of concern about climate change, without the imposition of any financial pain.

Scheer’s plan starts off in encouraging fashion — readers are asked to consider the environment before printing the document. It says that climate change is real and that evidence from around the world shows there is a global warming trend.

The targets agreed to by 197 countries in Paris in 2016 are re-iterated. “The Paris targets are Conservative targets,” the document says, pointing out that the pledge to cut emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 were first developed by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.

Scheer should be commended for sticking with Paris

The Conservative plan disparages the Liberal carbon tax, which, in the absence of other efforts to curb emissions, will need to rise to $102 per tonne to hit the Paris target (from $20 per tonne today), according to the Parliamentary Budget Officer. It proposes a better way to achieve those goals “without making the lives of Canadian harder or more expensive”: to invest in green technology by levying payment from large emitters who exceed a “Green Investment Standard.” That money would then be invested in research and development into emissions reducing technology.

There is very little detail on the mechanism, but a number of things can be said.

One, the provinces with the most large emitters — Ontario and Alberta — already have a carbon price over a certain cap. It’s not clear if the federal plan would displace the provincial one but given the Conservative Party’s default position on provincial rights it seems unlikely. In other words, this is a policy that might not apply in the provinces where it might actually be effective.

Two, companies that produce a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of output often compete in tight global markets. A high carbon price would add significantly to costs and allow international competitors to undercut them, leading to “leakage,” where carbon pricing causes polluting activity to emerge elsewhere.

The Liberal government introduced “output-based pricing” to help ease those pressures (firms are rewarded for reducing the intensity of their emissions). If Scheer is proposing to scrap output-based pricing, he will face competitiveness problems, jobs losses and a shrinking economy. Again, it seems unlikely he would go down that road.

There is very little else here that will significantly reduce emissions, which are currently around 704 megatonnes of CO2 equivalent and need to get to 513 megatonnes by 2030, if we are to achieve our Paris targets.

Andrew Leach, a professor of energy and the environment at the University of Alberta, pointed out that industrial emissions in Canada account for around 270 megatonnes a year. “If that is the only place we are looking, there aren’t enough to get all the way to our Paris targets,” he said.

There are some reasonable, common sense measures here that would nibble away at the total — a Scheer government would revive the home tax credit that proved so popular under the Harper government, allocating $900 million a year to pay for energy-saving renovations up to $20,000.

But for the most part, the Conservative plan tries to present motion as action. The façade slips toward the end of the document. “Canada wouldn’t make a global impact by focusing only on reducing emissions within our borders,” it claims.

That is in itself a dubious proposition. Canada wants other countries to live up to their climate change commitments. How can it use moral suasion in that regard if it doesn’t take action domestically?

But it gets worse. Scheer claims that Canada, “a relatively low emitter” (in fact, one of the world’s largest per capita greenhouse gas emitters), is subjecting itself to expensive emission reduction strategies, while high-emitting developing countries with lower-cost emissions-reduction opportunities struggle to make investments.

There are some reasonable, common sense measures here

The goal here appears to be to invoke Article 6 of the Paris Agreement so that countries like Canada could get credit on their emissions targets for any exports of clean technology or energy that displace dirtier sources abroad — for example, Canadian liquified natural gas that displaces coal in China.

But the Paris Agreement is clear: the accounting system signed onto by 197 countries is based on emissions that take place in your own territory. Displacing Chinese coal with LNG would reduce global emissions and it would expand the Canadian economy, but it could not be counted towards Canada’s Paris targets (unless the Chinese voluntarily gave up those credits — an unlikely scenario, one would suggest.)

Scheer should be commended for sticking with Paris, the only global plan we have right now. He should be applauded for stating unequivocally that climate change is real.

But this is a missed opportunity.

Scheer could have offered a bold vision of a new conservatism, rooted in the desire to preserve and protect the environment.

As the philosophical founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, once said: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”

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