Can Canadian politics ever achieve a climate consensus?

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We should demand that our political leaders stop trying to win partisan points on climate change, and reach a consensus on action as other nations have.

In Germany in September, the coalition cabinet led by Angela Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union announced a sweeping $74-billion climate policy package. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is working through its third Climate Budget for emissions reductions, overseen by an independent committee. Having passed a climate change law in 2008, the British government no longer bickers over the core issue of emissions reduction targets. One of Theresa May’s last acts as Conservative prime minister earlier this year was to commit her country to net-zero GHG emissions by 2050.

Canadian politics around climate change looks embarrassingly immature in comparison. None of us particularly enjoys the petty partisanship of Canadian politics, but even more grating is the fighting over what to do about climate change. It’s been more than 20 years since the Kyoto Accord was signed half-heartedly by the Liberal government of the day. That the current government plan doesn’t even get us to our Paris Accord targets shows you how much of an impediment partisanship has become. Surely we have arrived at a point where we can get past the basics and agree on a baseline of action?

In this election, a consensus has emerged on the centre and centre-left around carbon pricing and moving toward a net-zero emissions economy in the decades to come. The Greens, to their credit, have a proposal in their platform to create a “cross-party inner cabinet” to deal with climate action. Otherwise, it’s partisan business as usual. Even the New Democrats have not seemed eager to pursue an armistice on climate. When they learned MP Pierre Nantel was talking to the Green Party about potential collaboration, he was quickly ejected.

The Conservative Party of Canada has proposed a plan that contains neither regulations nor carbon pricing, and even elements that would directly increase emissions — such as widening roads to allow more cars and alleviate commuter stress. The Conservatives would get rid of federal carbon pricing as a first order of business if they form government.

The situation seems dire, but if we look to other countries, there could be a glimmer of hope.

In both Germany and the United Kingdom, for example, conservative politicians were instrumental in helping to create a core consensus around climate policy. It’s important to note that both countries had a particular history that arguably made it easier for conservatives to champion climate action, but there might still be lessons for Canada.

In the United Kingdom, the consensus on climate action began to hatch in the 1980s, with the winding down of the coal industry by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. What started as a way to undermine the power of trade unions became something the Conservative Party could later sell as evidence that it had taken drastic action on emissions, explains Matthew Paterson, a climate politics expert from the University of Manchester. That Thatcher was investing heavily in science and had played up her past science credentials as an Oxford chemistry grad also added to the idea that her party could play a global leadership role in this area, Paterson explained in an interview.

In 2008, under a Labour government, a cross-party consensus in the UK House of Commons helped pass the Climate Change Act. This brought in the statutory requirement that the government introduce five-year climate budgets with clear targets and plans of action. An independent body was formed, the Committee on Climate Change, and includes climate scientists and economists. The committee reports to the UK Parliament.  Far from moving to repeal the Act,  Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron doubled down when he took over in 2010 and promised “the greenest government ever.”

A protest by nuns, monks and clergy taking part in a “kick the carbon habit” protest, where they called for MPs to strengthen the Climate Change Act, on April 23, 2008.

It is in the institutional structures that Paterson sees a potential model for Canada. Legislation around climate change is much harder to reverse than policy or regulations. Also, the Labour government of Tony Blair made sure that the prime minister himself was at the head of the government’s cabinet committee on climate, making it a central government priority.

“That institutionalizing, that embedding of climate policy in these processes — you would need to have a real clear wrecking ball approach to dislodge that,” said Paterson.

Josh Burke, with the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, says that a decade after the UK brought in the Climate Change Act, politicians today are able to demonstrate that economic growth and reducing emissions are not incompatible. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government recently announced $1.46 billion would be invested in the British automotive industry to support the development of electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell technology.

“The Conservatives are doing this properly: creating hundreds of thousands of low carbon jobs and growing our economy while successfully reducing emissions,” said Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom.

Germany’s relative consensus on climate change also appears to have been born in the 1980s, but around a burgeoning anti-nuclear-energy sentiment that was eventually shared by parties across the spectrum. Miranda Schreurs, an environment and climate policy professor at the Bavarian School of Public Policy in Munich, notes that Angela Merkel happened to be the government’s environment minister at the time of the Kyoto Accord, and so made it a key element of her political leadership over the years to push for climate action. The most recent climate package includes a shutdown of Germany’s coal industry by 2038, with a plan for transitioning workers to different types of jobs.

“From a Canadian perspective, this must seem very exciting, but the German government is getting critiqued for not doing enough,” Schreurs told me in a recent conversation. That critique includes the idea that carbon taxes aren’t high enough to get more cars off the road.

Today, Schreurs explained, Germans (and Europeans more broadly) are intensely worried about climate change and the effects it is already having on the continent. She said political leaders there see the transition to a low-carbon or no-carbon economy as intertwined with the embrace of a data- and technology-driven economy, and therefore as essential for the country’s success in the future. And in Germany, the Greens hold the majority of state governments.

Protesters mark the global climate strike in Berlin on Sept. 20, 2019. Shutterstock/By anyaivanova

Let it be said that there are many differences between the Canadian and European economies. Canada’s reliance on fossil fuel production, mining and agriculture make action much more politically fraught. It’s difficult to shave off more emissions when so much of our electricity is already from hydro. And the nature of the federation makes it difficult to broker collective action.

Still, there are more Conservative voices arguing for efficient and cost-effective climate action than there used to be. MP Michael Chong ran for the party leadership. Mark Cameron, a deputy minister in Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s government, was a proponent of carbon pricing and executive director of the group Sustainable Prosperity.

Whichever party forms government in Ottawa, its leadership might consider whether there is a way to neutralize partisanship around the issue, perhaps by creating an arm’s-length expert committee such as exists in the UK. Although three of the major parties have focused on carbon pricing, the UK experience with five-year climate budgets might be a model for future action, allowing the party in power to choose the evidence-based tools necessary to reduce emissions in a meaningful way — something that Burke notes is one of the key features of the UK’s Climate Change Act.

The Liberals in particular could also be more magnanimous when dealing with those who have different visions for action. When Manitoba sought to introduce a flat $25 carbon tax that varied from the one the federal government was proposing, it got the cold shoulder from Ottawa. As David McLaughlin has noted, “Political devotion to the [Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change] ultimately trumped political pragmatism.”

If Andrew Scheer becomes our next prime minister, perhaps he could draw from his experience as Speaker of the House and work to broker some sort of consensus on climate action among the federal parties. He could also lean on some of his party’s legacy on the environment. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was drafted in 1987 during the Brian Mulroney years. Mulroney also helped to bring in the Canada-US Air Quality Agreement of 1991 (the acid rain treaty).

With some sort of political peace around climate action, a strong signal will be sent to the provinces about the policy direction the country is taking. Climate policy should no longer be viewed as a wedge issue.

It’s no longer enough that federal party leaders show us their climate plans. They must also explain what steps they will take to achieve a form of cross-partisan peace on this issue.

Photo: People march during a climate strike in Montreal, Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes


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