By Aaron Freeman
 
You know the federal government is having a bad week on the environment file when, on the same day, two of the country’s most pro-business organizations condemn the Conservatives’ climate change plan for being weak and inadequate.
 
On Wednesday, the Conference Board of Canada issued a report card on Canada’s performance in the world. On Canada’s environmental performance, the report concludes, “On balance, it gets a ‘D,’ which puts it near the bottom of the pack.” The report hones in on climate change in particular as “Canada’s Achilles heel.” 
 
“We are still in the early stages of formulating policy on carbon dioxide emissions, a decade after the Kyoto Protocol was signed,” the report observes.
 
On the same day, a new C.D. Howe Institute study made headlines. The Institute ran economic simulations projecting Canada’s emissions under the Conservatives’ new climate change plan. The government plan — widely criticized as weak by environmentalists, opposition parties, and even industry leaders — promises to reduce greenhouse gasses by 20 percent by 2020. But the study found that even the plan’s own modest targets may not be reached, and emissions could actually rise.
 
The two reports follow an embarrassing week for Canada at an international climate change gathering in Germany, where we were berated by international leaders for our poor emissions record. At the conference, Prime Minister Stephen Harper lined up behind U.S. President George W. Bush’s successful strategy of undermining further international efforts to set greenhouse gas targets. 
 
Harper seems to have won converts among some mainstream commentators with his line that Canada’s is “unique” among nations, and should be excused for failing to meet its Kyoto targets because we are a growing, energy-exporting country. But every country is unique, and many face difficulties in meeting the ambitious Kyoto targets. What makes Canada truly unique is that virtually all other industrialized nations got serious about reducing emissions early on, while we’re still barely out of the starting gate. 
 
Canada’s distinct society claim would have more credibility if there was some evidence that the federal government had made an honest effort to reduce emissions. And that evidence wouldn’t be hard to find. 
 
Building codes would require that new homes install energy-efficient appliances, reducing hydro bills for new homeowners. Solar panels would heat the water in our homes, a measure that can pay for itself in just four years for a new home. Wind farms would dot the landscape, as is the case in Denmark, which gets about one quarter of its energy from this renewable source. (Canada gets just about 2 percent of its energy from renewables.) 
 
Environment Minister John Baird says aggressive action on climate change will wreck the economy. So where is his economic prowess when it comes to policies that would encourage these clean and profitable measures? Where is the commitment for a 20-percent renewables target by 2020, a job-creating, energy-saving goal that Canada could easily meet with the right incentives? Where is the federal building retrofit program, like Toronto’s Better Buildings Fund, a revolving loan fund that has created more than $160 million in economic benefits while cutting C02 emissions by nearly 200 megatonnes?
 
California and about eight other states have mandated new vehicle standards, triggering new markets for cleaner cars. Several U.S. states are years ahead of Canada in setting up emissions trading programs to reduce greenhouse gasses from large industrial plants. 
 
With Canada’s federal leadership vacuum, provinces are taking the lead. BC will join with California on new car standards and an emissions trading system. Ontario will release a climate change plan in the coming days that is expected to pledge major emissions reductions. It has already announced that it will join with U.S. states on a clean fuel standard, sending a strong signal to the tar sands that oil companies there will have to reduce their emissions if they hope to compete.
 
If the federal government had implemented any combination of these measures, it could credibly claim we tried our best and that our target should be adjusted. We didn’t. It shouldn’t.
 
So let’s start with the low-hanging fruit, the measures that will reduce Canada’s emissions while making or saving us money. With some initial progress and some extra money in the pockets of consumers and businesses, it will be a lot easier to handle the relatively modest costs of deeper reductions. 
 
Once we’ve shown that we can make an honest effort, we can go to back our international partners, and perhaps they’ll be a bit more forgiving.
 
– Aaron Freeman is the Policy Director for Environmental Defence. The opinions expressed are his own.