OTTAWA - No previous federal budget has ever done more for the environment than the one delivered this week by the Conservative government, according to Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq.
The puzzling claim during a raucous question period in the House of Commons came a day after Finance Minister Joe Oliver tabled a 518-page document that contains no new spending or specific policy measures for curbing greenhouse gas emissions and mentions the issue of a "changing climate" just once — in relation to previously funded genome research on trees.
"Today is Earth Day but climate change, one of the biggest threats to future generations, well, it's not in the budget," NDP environment critic Megan Leslie told the Commons question period Wednesday.
Her colleague, Edmonton MP Linda Duncan, followed up by asking why the Conservatives aren't pursuing policies that promote clean energy technologies.
"No federal budget has done more for the environment," Aglukkaq responded, before reciting a short list of budgetary measures that included extending an existing chemicals management plan, money to clean up contaminated federal sites, Arctic weather services and funding for the Species at Risk Act.
Curiously, the minister did not cite one of the government's highest profile budget announcements: A promise to raise spending on major urban public transit systems by $1 billion annually after 2019.
In six pages describing the transit funding plan, the Conservative budget doesn't even mention environmental benefits, although Oliver later raised the green impact when pressed on the matter by reporters.
Patrick Leclerc, vice-president of the Canadian Urban Transit Association, called the environment benefits of transit spending "the untold story" of the 2015 budget.
"As part of any sound environmental strategy, you need to include public transit, active transportation and integrated mobility," Leclerc said in an interview, citing studies that it reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
The contrast between Aglukkaq's question period hyperbole and the undersold green benefits of the budget's transit funding points to the government's lack of seriousness on climate change, said Liberal environment critic John McKay.
"I don't even think the (Conservative) core buys her assertions," McKay said in an interview.
"But in my judgment, they just don't care: 'It's not a problem we're going to get fussed about — and tell me about my tax cut'."
Environment Canada reported last week that national GHG emissions rose 1.5 per cent between 2012 and 2013 to 726 megatonnes, the fourth consecutive annual increase.
That makes it increasingly improbable Canada will come close to meeting its international commitment to cut emissions 17 per cent below 2005 levels by the year 2020 — with new international climate change negotiations slated for later this year in Paris.
Dave Sawyer, an economist with EviroEconomics, called this week's budget a lost opportunity.
The budget put $500 million into "responsible resource development," including tax breaks for resource companies doing environmental assessments and subsidies to liquefied natural gas producers.
"To have that, and not to have a nod towards clean energy in the lead-up to Paris 2015 and thinking about how we position ourselves to take advantage of these global low-carbon opportunities, it's really surprising to see that."
However David McLaughlin, former head of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy and a one-time chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney, found nothing surprising in the Conservative pitch.
The election-year budget is a finely tuned political document, hitting all the notes the Harper government wants its potential supporters to hear, he said.
McLaughlin noted the budget also failed to include even a hat tip to long-promised co-operation with the United States on common GHG regulations for the oil and gas sector.
As it happens, Natural Resources Minister Greg Rickford was in Houston on Wednesday meeting U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
A read-out of the meeting from Rickford's office stated: "Minister Rickford expressed Canada's strong interest in aligning environmental standards in new areas — including oil and gas — that build on our existing progress, while protecting jobs and economic growth on both sides of our shared border."
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