12/11/2015 11:35 EST | Updated 12/11/2016 05:12 EST

Too Much Ambition Can Hurt Canada's Climate Change Efforts

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As many know Canada is endorsing a call to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference.

Based on the IPCC, at the 2014 rate of global carbon emissions we will globally exceed the carbon budget necessary to achieve a 50 per cent likelihood of not overshooting the 1.5 degrees Celsius target in approximately 10 years. While some researchers have some pretty complicated plans to achieve a goal of zero carbon emissions, not one can achieve that goal within 10 years. Given this information, it is safe to say that any attempt to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is simply not achievable using current technology.

So, the question that must be asked is: why would Canada endorse such a call? The only answer is "virtue signalling." As one respected author puts it, signing on to the pledge "is about respect. In pushing to include reference to a 1.5-degree Celsius limit, Canada is saying that the people of small island developing states and vulnerable countries like Bangladesh matter."

Now, I am all for showing respect, but as someone interested in the implementation of environmental policy I would suggest that such "virtue signalling" actually has the potential to further degrade the Canadian effort to achieve meaningful decreases in our carbon emissions. This is because we live in a world of Realpolitik , and in that world you can't afford to make empty commitments or you risk losing necessary political support.

Looking into the recent past we can all find a relevant parallel in the field of climate change: Jean Chretien and Canada's Kyoto pledge. For those of you not versed in political history, during the negotiation for the Kyoto Protocol Jean Chretien informed his negotiators to meet or beat the American commitment. For him it was about the symbolism.

Unfortunately, the numbers agreed to by Canada were so ambitious that Prime Minister Chretien essentially decided to write them off based on the principal that it is as well to be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. For almost a decade Canada did virtually nothing to address its carbon emissions until it became clear that we could not meet our pledge at which time Canada withdrew from Kyoto.

It is generally agreed in policy circles that had Canada agreed to reasonable goals and that the Chretien government could have sold them to the public and got buy-in for the pain necessary to make them happen, but by promising the moon and the stars he failed to achieve any political traction.

Continuing our historical theme, let's look at a case where positive change was achieved: the Montreal Protocol. In the negotiations for the Montreal Protocol, the Canadian government sought achievable goals in negotiations. Because the goals were reasonable the Canadian government got agreement from its provincial and territorial partners and there was buy-in nationally allowing the implementation to run smoothly.

This resulted in unexpected improvements in performance and strengthening of the protocol over the years. There is a reason that it is considered good business to undersell and over deliver and not oversell and under deliver.

In order for the federal government to address carbon emissions it needs buy-in from the provinces. Unfortunately for Prime Minister Trudeau, the provincial premiers have their own issues and are unlikely to spend their personal political capital making him look better.

Ask Premier Notley how proposing a carbon tax is working for her popularity. Now consider that Premier Notley did virtually everything right in the lead-up to her carbon tax. She picked a strong non-partisan panel that did a tremendous job of public consultation, and they came up with a very reasonable Climate Leadership Plan.

Now imagine Prime Minister Trudeau going back to Premier Notley to say, "that was great but we need much deeper cuts much sooner." The speed with which she would show him the door would be interesting to behold. Ontario, Quebec (and now Manitoba) meanwhile are all implementing their combined carbon market. Imagine Prime Minister Trudeau's reception when he drops the bomb on them?

As for B.C., Premier Clark has an election in May 2017 and does not have any political capital to spare.

If the Canadian government wants to make real change then it needs to figure out the most we can achieve and then commit to doing so. Empty symbolic gestures will certainly garner praise from activists and make for good headlines but it won't convince the premiers to get in line.

We need the federal government to be practical and pragmatic and set achievable goals and then work hard to achieve them. Let's stop with the empty symbolism and start doing the groundwork to build the foundation for real change.


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