Saskatchewan’s government needs to fight climate change, not the feds
News | by Gregory Beatty
“Battle Royal” is how wrestling fans might describe the looming court fight over the federal Liberal government’s plan to put a modest price on carbon pollution. The Liberal policy — opposed by several provinces with conservative governments, Saskatchewan chief among them — is part of a broader strategy to meet Canada’s commitment under the 2016 Paris Accord to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change.
The Trudeau government’s carbon pricing initiative follows a decade of thumb-twiddling and empty promises by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which was famously hostile to climate change action, scientists and anything to do with the environment (which as far as we can tell, it hated).
While Ottawa and Saskatchewan are the main litigants in the reference case — which Saskatchewan’s Court of Appeal will hear Feb. 13–14 — 14 other parties have been granted intervenor status. On the Saskatchewan government’s side there’s the Attorney General of Ontario, the United Conservative Party (Alberta), the Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
Ottawa, meanwhile, has the Attorney General of B.C., the David Suzuki Foundation, the Canadian Public Health Association and the Canadian Environmental Law Association.
So it’s going to be a crowded ring — uh, I mean, courtroom.
The case hinges on whether Ottawa has the constitutional authority to impose a carbon price on provinces without one [see sidebar]. It’s an important issue, but it pales in comparison to what’s really at stake — that we need to take serious action to stave off climate change before it devastates human civilization.
Carbon pricing has wide support among economists, environmentalists and even business associations such as the Canadian Chamber of Commerce. Making people and corporations pay for the pollution they create, the thinking goes, motivates them to make smart choices to reduce their carbon footprint.
It’s a market-based policy, so in theory, capitalism fans should love it.
Governments can act in other ways. They could, for example, regulate how much pollution people and corporations can emit, and what sort of things they can and can’t do to ensure our goal gets met.
To the very limited extent that the Saskatchewan government has acted, that’s the approach it’s favoured — putting a 25,000 tonne cap on carbon emissions for over 40 heavy industrial emitters. If they exceed the cap, they’ll allegedly be charged $20 a tonne starting in 2021.
That measure is part of Saskatchewan’s “Prairie Resilience” climate plan, which the government unveiled in December 2017. Short on specific proposals to reduce GHG emissions, the plan focuses mostly on mitigating the projected effects of climate change.
Ottawa examined Prairie Resilience and found it wanting. The Saskatchewan Environmental Society (SES) recently released its own assessment, and reached the same conclusion.
SES graded Prairie Resilience in 10 areas, ranging from oil and gas and electricity generation to transportation, agriculture and communicating scientific information about climate change.
The marks? One B, two Cs, four Ds and three Fs.
“I’m really worried because we’ve only got until mid-century to phase out fossil fuels if we’re going to avoid catastrophic effects,” says Peter Prebble, who co-authored the report with Margret Asmuss, Ann Coxworth and Bob Halliday. “The phase-out needs to be worldwide, and it needs to be done in an orderly manner. So I think it’s imperative Saskatchewan work with the federal government to meet Canada’s targets under the Paris agreement.”
The SES report makes for scary reading. The authors point out that since the start of the industrial age (c. 1750), atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have risen by 146 per cent, 257 per cent and 122 per cent respectively. All three are potent greenhouse gasses, and once released they remain in the atmosphere for decades.
Scientists have speculated about climate change since the early 1800s, and have seriously studied it since the 1960s. Evidence that it’s occurring is irrefutable.
In fact, real-world effects that were predicted to be decades away are being observed now.
“If anything, what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been warning about is cautious,” says Prebble. “That’s not surprising, because the panel does its work by consensus. Yet when you read the projections, they say that hundreds of millions of people are going to be negatively impacted by climate change within a few decades if action is not taken.”
As forecast, feedback loops are starting to kick in and they present a real wild card because they have the potential to greatly magnify the impacts we’re already seeing. Shrinking ice caps and glaciers, for instance, lead to more sunlight and heat being absorbed by the land and water.
Melting permafrost is releasing methane into the atmosphere, which leads to faster melting.
The SES report has all the gory details — record heat waves in the 55 degree C range, raging wild fires, droughts, floods and other extreme weather events. It makes for sobering reading.
The good news, though, is that we still have time to act. Even better, green technologies that have been in development for years are now hitting the market.
A Real Action Plan
SES doesn’t just critique Prairie Resilience — the report offers numerous suggestions on how Saskatchewan can improve its carbon game.
The province desperately needs to do that because, as the report says, our annual per capita emissions are sky high. Sixty-nine tonnes per person, to be exact — which is over triple the Canadian average and nine times the global average.
Currently, oil and gas account for 32 per cent of our emissions, agriculture 24 per cent, electricity generation 19 per cent and transportation 14 per cent.
Under Saskatchewan’s newly announced Methane Action Plan, the oil and gas industry will be expected to reduce its emissions by 4.5 million tonnes per year by 2025. Right now, the industry just vents/flares methane at the wellhead. That gas can be collected, though, and used productively.
While SES applauds some steps SaskPower has taken to reduce emissions from electricity generation, more needs to be done.
“We don’t think it’s going to be easy to achieve the national emission target in agriculture,” says Prebble. “We’d like to see coal-fired power plants completely phased out in the next 12 years. And we’d like to see Saskatchewan import more hydro from Manitoba, along with emphasizing electricity efficiency and doing more to promote solar and wind power, and co-generation.”
Ottawa could play a key role here, says Prebble.
“What the federal government should do is help fund the transmission grid that would allow hydro electricity to be moved efficiently from Manitoba. It should be doing more to help Alberta too, as it could benefit from B.C. hydro. And I think Ottawa’s very open to those conversations.”
Transportation is another sector where it will be a challenge to reduce emissions. But even here, steps can be taken.
Same with the municipal and building sector, with both Regina and Saskatoon City Councils strongly committed to green agendas.
“They have ambitious goals and I think they’re serious about pursuing them, but they need support from the province,” says Prebble. “In a lot of other provinces, governments step forward and help municipalities. That’s needed here, both with policy goals and financial support.”
To sum up, the situation is increasingly desperate but we still have a way out.
But we can’t kick the [oil] can down the road any longer.
We need to act.
And Prebble says we should think long and hard about how history will look back at this time.
“People who are in decision-making positions, and all of us in society, over the next 30 years; we’re the generation that has the most opportunity to make a difference before it becomes too late.
“If we don’t do anything now, a child born in 2050 who becomes an adult in 2070 will have every reason to throw up their hands.” says Prebble.
“We still have the ability to chart a sustainable future, and it’s imperative we seize the opportunity to do it.”
Read the Saskatchewan Environmental Society report at environmentalsociety.ca.
Carbon Price: The Right’s Fight
What’s at question in the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal reference case is the constitutionality of the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act. Because air pollution doesn’t respect borders, provincial or international, Ottawa argues, it has a general power to price carbon to protect the health and well-being of Canadians, and honour international treaties.
Saskatchewan argues that Ottawa is infringing on provincial jurisdiction in areas such as natural resources and industrial/commercial activity, and that makes the GGPPA unconstitutional.
Most legal scholars favour Ottawa. If Saskatchewan loses the case, that would hopefully be the end of it. If Ottawa was to lose, though, it would likely appeal to the Supreme Court.
Looming in the background, of course, is the October federal election. Both the federal Conservatives and their provincial allies such as the Saskatchewan Party, Alberta’s United Conservative Party and Doug Ford’s PCs in Ontario claim they believe climate change is real. But at the same time, they love using it as a partisan wedge issue.
So really, how committed are they?
When conservative governments do set emission reduction targets, they inevitably miss them by a country mile.
Possibly worse, instead of refuting a dog’s breakfast of denial arguments out there (it’s not happening; it’s happening but it’s natural; it’s a giant scientific/environmental/Chinese/leftist conspiracy, etc), they fuel them.
Doug Ford did it the other day with a wild claim in an Economic Club of Canada speech that a carbon price would cause a major recession. The Sask. Party did it in June, when it released a study that concluded a carbon price would devastate the province’s economy.
That study has subsequently been discredited.
“I think Ottawa is genuinely working to meet the Paris target, and the lack of cooperation it’s receiving from several provincial governments is making that task much more difficult,” says the Saskatchewan Environmental Society’s Peter Prebble.
SES is non-partisan. But with the federal election eight months away, Prebble can’t help but note that Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives have yet to reveal their plan to meet Canada’s Paris commitment, which calls for a 30 per cent reduction from 2005 GHG emission levels by 2030.
“The initial pledge was actually made by Prime Minister Harper,” Prebble says. “The Liberal government, I think, looked at strengthening it, then just decided to actually meet it because the former government didn’t have an action plan that in any way would reach the target it had set.”