Environment Minister John Baird deserves credit for telling the truth about Canada's sadly constrained ability to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Despite opposition claims to the contrary, the minister admitted yesterday that it is far too late to meet the nation's commitments under the Kyoto Protocol, if only because slashing emissions would devastate the economy. "We will not spin the wheel so hard as to put the Canadian economy in the ditch to deliver [the] environmental plan asked for in some quarters," he said in a blunt speech. "We will turn the corner, with a balanced plan that recognizes the urgent need to act on the environment, while also respecting our responsibility to keep Canadian families working."
Mr. Baird was also commendably frank in conceding that industry alone cannot pick up the whole cost. For years, governments have downplayed the effects of compliance on consumers, citing the economic gains that could emerge from new technologies. Individual Canadians, Mr. Baird countered, will have to do their share, starting with the minor sacrifice of a switch to compact fluorescent lights (see below). More significantly, consumers will be hit with higher prices for products such as vehicles, natural gas and electricity, household appliances and groceries. Finally, we are being told the full story.
It's about time that politicians admitted what has long been obvious. Although the former Liberal government signed the Kyoto pact in 1998, it dawdled in its efforts to pare emissions to an average of 6 per cent below 1990 levels during the 2008-2012 period. Instead, the level of emissions in 2004 was 34.6 per cent above the Kyoto target of 563 million tonnes per year. Today, that level could be as high as 780 million tonnes. The nation is going in the wrong direction. Canada would have succeeded, Mr. Baird claimed, if his plan, which includes mandated targets for industry, had been adopted in 1998.
That was then. Now, the Tory plan would merely halt the rise of emissions in three to five years. By 2020, if it remains the only plan, emissions would be down by 150 million tonnes, or 20 per cent less than today's levels. That is not much. Indeed, in the longer term, it will not be nearly enough. But it is a start on a difficult problem, deploying complex solutions such as the introduction of a domestic emissions trading system. Ideally, the technology fund in the current package could eventually produce better solutions.
Still, the minister has not dealt with the basic problem of Kyoto: It is a trade deal that will impose heavy penalties on nations that do not meet their targets. As it stands, after 2012, Canada will be required to purchase pricey emissions credits from nations that have met their targets - or it will face tough trade sanctions. Canada has been facing this looming mess since it signed the accord. At least the Conservatives are starting to tackle the problems with some realistic solutions.