The environment measures unveiled last week by the Conservative federal government would have been revolutionary in 1997, the year the Kyoto accord on climate change was opened for signature. Adopted then, these measures would have put Canada well on the way to meeting our 2012 Kyoto targets for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.
But Canada didn't ratify Kyoto until 2002, and then successive Liberal governments did none of the things that Stephen Harper's government now proposes to do. So the stylized outrage of the opposition parties in denouncing the new plan is not only bogus but an insult to voters' intelligence.
As we have argued previously, Canada's compliance with Kyoto is not the key issue. What's important is that global emissions of greenhouse gases begin to decline. Liberal leader Stephane Dion, among others, would do well to stop bleating that the government has "abandoned Kyoto and the Canadian people" and tell us what he would do about runaway increases in Chinese emissions.
It's now 2007. To comply with Kyoto Canada has to get emissions down to six per cent below our 1990 levels by 2012. Nobody really knows how to do that without massive disruptions to Canadian life.
In fact, even the measures Baird does plan will be tricky to put into place. Emissions auditing, for example - how much, and of what, is actually coming out of a given smokestack or tailpipe: Is the amount the same all day long? Every day of the year? This is a field full of estimates, theoretical calculations, imprecisions, approximations, fudge factors, best guesses, conflicts of interest and technical problems.
The Conservatives' green plan - critics call it "pale green," or "brown" - includes carbon credits, which create a market in permission to emit greenhouse gases. Companies which reduce emissions can profit from their eco-virtue by selling permission to emit so many tonnes of gases to less efficient companies.
A neat idea, but does it work? Investigative journalists at Britain's Financial Times reported last week that they had "uncovered widespread failings in the new markets for greenhouse gases, suggesting some organizations are paying for emissions reductions that do not take place. Others are meanwhile making big profits from carbon trading for very small expenditure and in some cases for clean-ups that they would have made anyway." In recent months the market in European Union carbon permits has imploded as people realize that the system is working poorly.
That point about "anyway" credits helps to explain some of the enthusiasm which certain major emitting companies have shown for vigorous action: depending on the details of legislation, some companies have a chance to turn big profits from emission reductions they have already made for normal commercial or public-relations reasons. Canadian business knows well how to "do well by doing good" in shaping the regulatory regime.
No matter what the high priests of activism tell us, there is no easy solution to this grave global problem. Just this week the European Union - so often held up as a shining example of green consciousness, not to say conscience - admitted that its bio-fuel program, once lavishly praised, might accelerate the exploitation of Asian rainforests and peat areas - which would speed up climate change.
Even the fluorescent lightbulbs Ottawa will require us to use are less than ideal. Each one contains a small amount of mercury: if each bulb is not recycled in a particular way, that will become a problem.
These points are not cited to argue that nothing can be done about climate change. Plenty can be done, in Canada and globally, to bring emissions down. But rather little can be done instantly and painlessly. Just as it was foolish of the world's leaders to react slowly to scientific warnings about warming, so it would be foolish for governments, or voters, to be stampeded into ill-considered action.
The Conservatives are late-comers to this issue, and many suspect that their heart is not quite in it. It does appear that they have been quite gentle in dealing with the oil industry. Intensity targets alone, in a sector running full throttle, will do little to reduce overall emissions.
But an absolute emissions cut, in any sector or country, is not possible without substantial economic consequences. The Conservatives judge that half of one per cent of gross domestic product - their cost estimate for this program - is a reasonable amount. That debate can continue.
While it does, the economic burden of this program will be shared through the economy, as consumer prices rise because of this plan. For once, this is fair, because we are each, without exception, responsible for a share of the national greenhouse-gas total.
In the realm of the art of the possible, then, the plan Baird brought in is a credible, practical step forward.