By Mark Jaccard
Originally published in Alternatives Journal, 2011
In 1997, then-prime-minister Jean Chrétien committed Canada to dramatically reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2010 by signing the Kyoto Protocol. This helped him win re-election in 2000. It mattered little that most independent policy experts claimed Chrétien’s modest climate policies would not stem the growth of Canada’s emissions. Their arguments proved true, but since Chrétien was no longer in office in 2010, there was little interest by then in learning from his failed climate policies.
Or maybe someone was learning.
In 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper committed Canada to dramatically reduce its GHG emissions by 2020. This helped him win re-election twice, including a majority government this year. It mattered little that most independent policy experts claimed Harper’s modest climate policies would not stem the growth of Canada’s emissions. Harper is unlikely to still be in office in 2020 should he fail to fulfill his promise to reduce emissions by 17 per cent. And, barring a miracle in human and political longevity, he is definitely not at political risk for his promise to reduce Canadian emissions 65 per cent by 2050.
The parallels are uncanny. But is the comparison fair? Perhaps Harper is not a Chrétien disciple, carefully learning the master’s recipe for a successful climate politics that matches do-little policies with a heroic commitment to a safely distant deadline. So how can we know, in the case of climate politics, if Harper is Chrétien redux?
Actually, the question is easily answered. When governments are faced with skepticism about their commitments and policies, they can commission independent assessments. This is a frequent practice. In 2007, for example, the Harper government asked me, as well as four other independent economists, if we agreed with its analysis that a last-ditch effort to reach Chrétien’s 2010 Kyoto target would be devastating to the Canadian economy. We all concurred, an assessment the Harper government quickly made public.
Thus, the Harper government could commission independent analysts or the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy to assess its climate policies for their likelihood of achieving the government’s 2020 promise. In fact, it did just that, albeit inadvertently, when it asked the roundtable to explain how to achieve its 2050 target. This analysis led to the 2009 report, Achieving 2050: A Carbon Pricing Policy for Canada. I say inadvertently because, while the government did not ask the roundtable to analyze the 2020 target, that date is on the path to 2050, making it a trivial task to extract from the report the approximate emission pricing and regulatory policies needed to achieve Harper’s 2020 promise. One can easily see that the government’s current policies will not achieve the 2020 target.
Because 2020 is nine years away, Harper benefits from an assumption that we cannot yet know if his policies will or will not achieve his promises. As the case above illustrates, however, independent climate-policy experts actually can tell well in advance if a target will be achieved. This is because many of our GHG emissions are associated with long-lived investments in energy supply, industrial facilities, buildings, vehicles and equipment. We know what needs to happen today for an emissions outcome 10 years hence. We already know that if government was serious about its 2020 promise, there would be no new investment today in oil sands development and oil pipelines, industries would face a rising price for GHG emissions, and regulations would be forcing a rapid transition to zero- and low-emission vehicles. But none of this is happening. While Jean Chrétien cannot be blamed for the actions of politicians who follow him, it appears that in the art of climate politics, he was a great teacher – and Stephen Harper an excellent student.