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June 29, 2009

The Greening Of Canada?

Reuel S. Amdur

Reuel S. AmdurOn June 2, Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, held a book signing at Ottawa’s Books on Beechwood.

She was pushing her new book, Losing Confidence, as well as two earlier ones, How to Save the World in Your Spare Time, and Global Warming for Dummies, which she co-authored with Zoë Caron.  While How to Save the World was available, the attention was all on the other two books.  Unfortunately, the two are quite connected. 

Losing Confidence addresses the growing distrust of government and politics.  According to May, the first-past-the-post electoral system is a part of the problem.  In countries with proportional representation systems voter participation is much higher and a larger portion of the elected are women.  People who favour Liberals in Alberta or Tories in downtown Toronto now feel that their vote will be wasted and simply stay away.

But that is only part of the problem.  Additionally, there is voter turn-off because of the Tory adoption of Republican Party-style attack ads—even between election campaigns.  She pointed to the anti-Dion “not a leader” and the anti-Ignatieff “just visiting” vituperation.

Then there is the growing centralization of power.  Canada has seen a centralization that is a cross between what occurs in the British Parliament and in the US presidential system, resulting in something more extreme than either.  The control exercised by Stephen Harper is the epitome of this centralizing tendency.  He muzzles MP’s and ministers.  According to Garth Turner, who was booted out of caucus for speaking his mind, Harper will not even allow members to speak in caucus without permission.  And then there is the truly amazing booklet that the Tories produced on how to disrupt the work of Parliamentary committees.  So what has that to do with global warming?  Quite simply, Harper does not believe in it.

In 2002, when he was leader of the Canadian Alliance, he called the Kyoto Accord “job-killing” and “economy-destroying.”  “Kyoto,” he said, “is essentially a socialist scheme to suck money out of wealth-producing nations.”  He claimed that the threat of global warming was based on “tentative and contradictory scientific evidence.”

Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General and currently head of the Global Humanitarian Forum, disagrees.  For him, global warming “is the greatest emerging humanitarian challenge of our time.”  The Forum claims that, unless the necessary steps are taken, climate change will cost half a million lives annually.  It is currently killing 300,000 a year, according to the Forum. 

May agrees totally with the views expressed by Annan and his Forum.  Stéphane Dion, the former Liberal leader, proposed a carbon tax as a tool to deal with greenhouse gas emissions. He succumbed to a Tory attack, claiming that Dion was calling for a tax grab.  Ignatieff has backed away from the Dion position.  Instead he favors a cap-and-trade approach “for large industrial emitters” and wants to reward consumers of low-carbon fuels with lower taxes.  He also wants improved vehicle emission standards.  However, when Canadian Geographic published a piece critical of the environmental impact of the oil sands, which are a major impediment to any reduction in Canadian greenhouse gas emissions, he responded that the Canadian Geographic “is not going to teach me any lessons about the oil sands.”   

The New Democratic Party wants to introduce incentives for energy from reliable sources and to remove tax breaks and subsidies for the tar sands, big oil and gas companies, and nuclear power.  However, in British Columbia the NDP attacked the Liberal government’s carbon tax, to the dismay of environmentalists.  According to University of Ottawa professor of environmental law Stewart Elgie, “Most economists and environmentalists agree that a well-designed carbon tax (such as B.C.’s) is the best approach to fighting climate change.” 

When Elizabeth May met with Jack Layton, where she raised the possibility of electoral co-operation, she reports that he said that that would be “undemocratic.”  We might recall that Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, former German Social Democratic Party leaders, saw the Greens as an alien movement, but the Social Democrats eventually ended up in coalition with them. 

During question period in Parliament, Bloc Québécois environment critic Bernard Bigras challenged the Tories on energy policy this May, complaining that Jim Prentice, the minister responsible, had gone to Washington to ask the US to lower their standards to protect the oil sands.  Mark Warawa, Prentice’s Parliamentary Secretary, responded that Canada was in dialogue with the US to bring about a 20 % reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2020.  Bigras then raised the issue of the oil sands.

The 20% reduction is from 2006, not from 1990, the Kyoto base year for reductions and the date used by the rest of the world in calculating greenhouse gas reductions.  Elizabeth May sees the dialogue as a figment of Tory imagination.  She says that Washington is focusing on the next climate change negotiations to be held in Copenhagen in December, not on Canada.  It seems clear that any Canadian change in this envelope will only occur in reaction to what Obama does. China, more than Canada, is a current focus of US efforts on climate change.  Together China and the US account for 40% of the world’s emissions.  So what is the Conservative government doing?

Canada will, Minister Prentice announced on June 11, use a cap-and-trade system, with market forces determining the price of carbon offsets.  The producers of carbon in excess of the cap will be forced to purchase offsets from underproducers.  As yet, no ceilings have been set, and it will be interesting to see what ceilings will be established for the oil sands.  Jack Layton demanded to know if the caps will be absolute or based on intensity.  If the latter, the caps would reflect output of carbon as a proportion of total production, so that a producer would still meet the cap required even if pollution increases due to increase in total production.  Past comments by the Tories suggest that Layton’s concern may be valid.   

While our control-freak Prime Minister continues to have his head in the sand—the tar sands, to be more specific—the alarming reports continue to proliferate.  A report on June 10 issued by researchers at Columbia University, the United Nations University, and Care International identify a more rapid than expected rate of melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica as evidence that previous estimates of the progression of global warming wee too low.  They foresee the real possibility of major flooding in Bangladesh, the Mekong delta, and the Nile delta, displacing millions of people and flooding huge areas of farmlands, in the next two or three decades.  As well, they see the likelihood of massive drought throughout Latin America. 

It seems clear that there are major challenges if Canada is to do its part in the fight against global warming.  The Liberal government in British Columbia has made a start, which the rest of the country might well emulate.  At the same time, the oil sands remain as the major roadblock to real progress in this battle.  Currently, the recession is slowing down our rate of greenhouse gas emissions, but a revitalized economy threatens to again push us in the wrong direction. 

* Reuel S. Amdur is freelance writer living near Ottawa.

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