The gap between the U.S. and Canadian approaches to climate change is growing wider, and it's not just the Keystone pipeline that is at risk of being swallowed in the chasm. Canadian jobs, exports, environment and democracy are all affected.
In recent weeks the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced emissions standards for new coal and natural gas electricity generation. The move is being hailed as an important step towards curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
The rules come on the heels of President Obama's climate change plan announced in June. After years of gridlock in Congress, he has chosen actions that will result in real reductions, but that don't require trade-offs with political opponents. Instead, the U.S. EPA will use existing regulatory tools to curb CO2 emissions.
The rules will require new coal-fired power plants to limit emissions to roughly half that of an existing plant, with the help of technologies like carbon capture and storage. Rules for existing plants are expected to follow next June.
The lack of coal regulations in the U.S. has been a favourite retort for Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, who has been quick to use it as an excuse for Canada's unregulated oil and gas emissions. While it may have been mostly true until Friday, that's no longer the case.
Furthermore, given that U.S. emissions from electricity generation account for about one third of their total emissions, these new rules set the U.S. even further down the road to meeting their target of 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, a target that is becoming more and more elusive for Canada.
Instead, according to the latest available annual greenhouse gas emissions inventory, Canada's emissions continue to rise. In 2011, Canada's emissions rose to 702 million tonnes (Mt), making our 607 Mt target all the more distant. Worse, Environment Canada projects that without stronger policies our emissions will continue to grow.
Strong policy signals are needed, or the oil sands will continue to struggle with social licence and market access barriers related to high carbon emissions and Canada's continued failure to take climate change seriously.
The long-promised regulations for the oil and gas sector never materialized. Instead, the Harper government appears to have abandoned Canadian industry midstream. Harper's latest move - promising to match U.S. oil and gas emissions regulations, sight unseen - smacks of desperation and suggests the government is making things up as it goes along. Harper's "made in Canada" plan is being outsourced to the U.S.
It is utterly irresponsible for Prime Minister Harper to commit to adopting regulations neither he, nor Canadians, have even seen. The U.S., in developing domestic rules, will examine the potential impact on their economy and to their domestic industry. They will consult U.S. stakeholders and the public, and conduct cost-benefit and risk analyses to find a solution that works for the economy, health and the environment in the U.S. - but who is going to look out for Canadian interests? That is not the job of U.S. regulators, and now it seems the Harper government wants to do little more than cut and paste.
It's a reckless approach designed to sell the Conservative strip-and-ship resource agenda at any cost, not to address climate change. It excludes the public, First Nations, the provinces and territories, and industry from participating in or being consulted on regulations that affect them. It is designed to do as little as possible - but just enough to sell a pipeline.
It's clear the U.S. President intends to get tough on climate change, and hopes Canada will do the same.
The Conservatives need to understand that it is not just about selling resources, it's about doing the right thing - soon. Canada needs a government that "gets it."
In June, President Obama said, "The question is whether we will have the courage to act before it's too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren."
Until our government understands the urgency to act, courage is not the biggest thing missing in Harper's Cabinet.
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