By Aaron Freeman
Up to now, Canada’s failure to address air pollution and climate change has been a non-stop blame game. The Liberals are denounced for 13 years of inaction on the file, while the Conservatives are vilified for cutting programs to encourage greenhouse gas reductions (and then, more recently, re-funding these programs under different names).  
We all know it’s easy to criticize. Hopefully, the time the time has arrived for these parties to come up with solutions. 

Late last year, the Conservatives agreed to an NDP request to send the Conservative’s Clean Air Act to a legislative committee after first reading, giving the committee a wide ambit to re-draft the legislation. 

Canadians are clearly demanding solutions. According to recent polls, voters now place environment at the top of their list of concerns, above health care, which topped the list for more than a decade.

A dwindling number of lobbyists continue to argue that swift action to address climate change will ruin our economy. But as the costs of climate change continue to rise, and the economic opportunities associated with pollution control become more apparent, these voices are becoming marginal. Indeed, last week, many of the largest U.S. companies, including Alcoa, General Electric, Dupont and others, stood with environmentalists in calling for mandatory measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

“The science of global warming is clear,” said Duke Energy chief executive officer James Rogers. “We know enough to act now.”

Also last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s special onvoy on global warming, Elliot Morley, noted the need for Canadian leadership on climate change before a key meeting in Germany next month that will set the stage for a G8 climate change plan later this year. Needless to say, such leadership will be absent if Canada has no real plan of its own.

Most of those involved in the issue know what a meaningful Clean Air Act would look like. Highlights include binding air emission standards, in line with the leading jurisdictions of Europe and the United States. It would also include short-, medium- and long-term targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, mandatory fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and targets for heavy industry that are in line with that sector’s 44 percent share of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

These issues have been discussed in endless consultations going back nearly a decade.  It was for this reason that the bill was referred to a legislative committee rather than an ordinary standing committee. A legislative committee is supposed to hear only from technical witnesses. Its job is to get down to business, returning the bill to Parliament with the needed changes, as soon as possible. 

The composition of the committee means it would be easy for any three parties to pass these measures. The question is which party wants to be on the outs. The Conservatives, now desperate to earn environmental kudos, may team up with the Bloc and NDP in an effort to out-green the Liberals. Or the Liberals may ante up to edge out the Conservatives. 

There are risks with each of these scenarios. The Conservatives may worry about alienating their base in the oil patch. The Liberals may be wary of helping pass what could become a Conservative flagship environmental bill. Even the green-leaning NDP and Bloc may fear giving the Conservatives an out on the environment. It’s always easier to criticize.

As a result, there may be efforts to delay the committee’s proceedings, a natural tendency on parliamentary committees. One or more parties may hope that if they can delay the bill long enough, it will eventually die on the order paper when an election is called. It was exactly this danger that prompted the executive directors of eight national environmental organizations to write to committee members last week urging that “an expedited Committee process is in the best interest of Canadians.”

“We believe that all parties understand the need for urgent action on climate and clean air, so the committee should have no need for lengthy debates,” the letter reads.  “A time period on the order of four weeks should be enough to debate the wording of any amendments and to consider C-30 clause by clause.”

These environmental leaders have it exactly right. On this bill, the greatest threat may turn out to be delay, and any parties that stand in the way of the committee doing its job quickly should therefore be viewed as starkly anti-environmental.

Parliament is arguably closer to a meaningful air pollution and climate change plan than ever before. The committee examining the Clean Air Act should bring together the best experts they can find and come up with the needed changes, and resist the partisan temptations to drag out the process.    
– Aaron Freeman is the Policy Director for Environmental Defence. The opinions expressed are his own.