By Aaron Freeman

In an unfortunate twist, the Conservative government is preparing to spike its own proposed Clean Air Act. A legislative committee specifically designed to re-draft and strengthen the Act recently completed its work and has sent the bill to the House of Commons for second reading. Criticizing the committee for doing what it was told to do, the government is suggesting it will let the bill die on the order paper. 

Such a move would demonstrate a serious disregard for the will of the democratically elected MPs on the committee. It would also suggest that when forced to choose between getting serious about environmental protection and helping safeguard oil industry profits, the Tories are opting for the latter. 

Recent claims by Environment Minister John Baird that the bill’s air pollution provisions were weakened by the committee are pure hogwash. The original Bill C-30 required the setting of ambient air objectives for just two of the eight most important air pollution substances identified by the bill. The revamped bill deals with all of them, providing a far more comprehensive blueprint for dealing with smog and other health hazards. 

But merely setting ambient air objectives – which measure the general state of air pollution in an area, rather than the concentrations coming out of a smokestack – does nothing to reduce pollution. Emission standards must also be set. Under the original bill, the government had the power, but not the obligation, to set emission standards. The government promised to develop such standards, but as even the most passive political observer knows, a promise is not the same as a requirement. Moreover, there was no indication of whether those standards would be set at a level that would actually protect people’s health. Making the current voluntary federal standards mandatory, for example, would only put in place standards that are considerably weaker than those in the U.S. and other jurisdictions.

To address climate change, the bill now includes short-, medium- and long-term national targets for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, beginning with Canada’s Kyoto target of reducing emissions to 6 per cent below 1990 levels by 2012. 

The new bill also establishes a regulatory cap on GHG emissions from heavy industry, a sector that accounts for almost half of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. Companies will have three ways to reach their targets: reducing their emissions on site, investing in verifiable domestic emissions reductions off site, or purchasing project-based credits under the Kyoto Protocol that represent verifiable reductions in emissions overseas.

The bill now opts for absolute GHG emission limits instead of the government-preferred intensity-based targets that would permit emissions to continue to grow.  Critics of intensity targets even include conservative economists like CIBC’s Jeffrey Rubin, who recently characterized an intensity approach as “an effectively meaningless tool for stabilizing, let alone reducing, the absolute level of greenhouse gas emissions.”

It is noteworthy that the Conservatives were responsible for advancing some significant amendments, such as encouraging the phase-out of toxic chemicals where safe substitutes exist, and enabling the government to identify pollution “hot spots” in need of particular attention. 

The Conservatives, and everyone else, knew that the bill would be strengthened in exactly the sorts of ways that it was. The whole point of referring the bill to the committee was to do just that. 

Will there be a cost to the measures set out in the bill? Most certainly. Some sectors, namely fossil fuels and other major emitters, will have to pay for the problem they have helped create. This cost will be reasonable – at the upper extreme, between 0.58 and $1.16 per barrel of oil, according to the Pembina Institute – a minor inconvenience for an industry enjoying multi-billion-dollar profits from oil prices that have gone from $20 a barrel in 2002 to more than $60 today. 

Other sectors, like Canada’s burgeoning renewable energy industry, would benefit tremendously. But without a clear signal from government that it is serious about addressing the problem, companies specializing in renewables will locate in other countries that have shown that they are serious about dealing with climate change. As a late adopter, Canada will lose out.

Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank, has warned that although meaningful action on climate change may cost up to 1 percent of global GDP, if we fail to take action, the cost of climate change will be in the range of 5 to 20 percent of GDP, likely to cause the worst global recession in recent history.

In short, the best science is telling us that we need immediate and urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and even conservative economists are telling us that the costs will be much higher if we fail to take this action. 

In a minority Parliament, consensus can be difficult to achieve. On air pollution and climate change, all three opposition parties agree on how to move forward. 

A weakening of the new Clean Air and Climate Change Act would reflect a failure to grasp this opportunity, and an even greater failure to comprehend the reality of climate change and air pollution.
– Aaron Freeman is the Policy Director for Environmental Defence. The opinions expressed are his own.