It took a bipartisan effort for Canada to miss its Kyoto targets, and it will take that same spirit of bipartisanship to miss the next ones. Never fear: History shows that, together, these two great parties are up to avoiding any task.
The latest set of targets to which the government of Canada has irrevocably committed itself -- notably, a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from current levels by the year 2020 -- are perfectly fine, as far as they go. Environmentalists may squawk that the new Conservative climate change plan marks the formal abandonment of our Kyoto targets, but that was effectively achieved over the last eight years of the Liberal government, when emissions, far from declining to 6% below 1990 levels, overshot by a mere 35%. In this, as in so many areas of late, the Tories are only signing on to Liberal policy.
Not only have they adopted Liberal attitudes to Kyoto -- something to be embraced in principle, but never in practice -- they have also copied much of the Liberal program. Thus, the Tory plan, like the Liberal plan, offers large industrial emitters a choice of reducing their emissions, or paying into a green technology fund. Thus, the Tory plan, like the Liberal plan, also allows companies to buy and sell emissions credits on international markets as a means of spreading the burden of adjustment. The Tories even go so far as to class carbon dioxide as a controlled substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. All three artifacts of Liberal policy were bitterly opposed by the Conservatives, not just in opposition, but in government. But that was last week.
But the most striking similarity between the two plans is that neither of them is likely to get us anywhere near the targeted reductions in emissions. Even the cap on large emitters, the one solid undertaking in either plan, is likely to be honoured more in the chequebook than the observance: at $15 per tonne, rising to $20, the penalty for exceeding the limits on emissions will be substantially less, for many companies, than the cost of complying with them. (That the limits are expressed in terms of "intensity" -- that is, in emissions per unit of output -- rather than absolute, on the other hand, is a red herring: A sufficient reduction in intensity becomes an absolute reduction.)
So while large emitters are expected to account for 60 megatonnes of the required 150 Mt reduction by 2020, I'll believe it when I see it. As for the remaining 90 Mt, to be extracted from other sectors, I can predict with some certainty it hasn't got a prayer. The policies that are supposed to achieve these reductions are largely the same grabbag of subsidies and regulations that the Liberals threw at the problem in one Action Plan after another, and they will fail for the same, very simple reason: because they do not impose the social costs of carbon emissions directly on individuals. And the reason for that is even simpler: because unlike large industrial emitters, individuals vote.
As both parties are acutely aware, public attitudes to global warming are, shall we say, conflicted. We want something done about it, and we want someone else to pay. And so rather than make anyone pay in a way they can see and feel -- and act upon -- both parties endeavour instead to socialize the cost, via subsidies, or disguise it, via regulation. Yes, some of the costs of capping industrial emissions will be passed on to consumers, and to that extent individuals will pay. But there are any number of other ways in which carbon is released into the atmosphere, and these will remain the province of such exquisitely useless exercises as subsidizing homeowners to retrofit their houses and imposing fuel-efficiency regulations on automobile manufacturers.
Don't we ever learn? The best that can be said about subsidies is that they apply only to those activities to which it occurs to the planners to apply them -- while across the economy, a thousand other carbon-releasing technologies are sprouting in their place. Worse, they are usually vastly inefficient -- think of the Tory tax credit for transit passes, which in 99 out of 100 cases will simply subsidize existing transit riders to do what they were already doing anyway -- when they are not actually counter-productive. I'm reminded of the liquor industry's ads urging temperance: "Please drink responsibly." The operative words are: please drink. Likewise, subsidize technologies that burn fossil fuels at a slower rate, and you are still subsidizing the burning of fossil fuels.
The Tories' newfound enthusiasm for fuel efficiency standards is even stranger. How many times does it need to be said? The main effect of legislating fuel efficiency is to reduce the cost of driving. At more miles per gallon, you can drive more miles at the same cost. Whereas by simply raising the price of gas at the pumps, or of carbon more generally, you impart a universal incentive to economize on its use.
As policy, then, the new Tory plan is a mess. As politics, however, it may prove to be shrewdly drawn. By embracing the Liberal approach so shamelessly, the Conservatives have called the Liberals' bluff. As Chantal Hebert has noted, if they are truly as committed to stopping global warming as they claim, and if the Tory plan is as much of a betrayal of that aim as they will say, then they have no choice: They must defeat the government, as soon as possible. If they do not, then they will have admitted, we are every bit as hypocritical as they are.