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The debate you didn’t hear on climate change

April 13, 2011

Last Tuesday’s English Language election leadership debates are over. Disappointingly, there was hardly a mention of environmental issues (there was more discussion of Facebook than Climate Change). Quite the contrast from the 2008 Election debates, when environment was a major issue. That’s an argument right there for including Elizabeth May in the leadership debates: the media Consortium that arranges the debates would probably have felt an obligation to include at least one environmental question if the Green Party were participating.

Debate2011.pngThe only real environmental debate arose in an exchange between NDP Leader Jack Leader and Prime Minister Harper about the Climate Change Accountability Act. If you're watching the debate on CBC's website, the exchange appears at 36:15 into the video.  Here’s the transcript:

Jack Layton: We’ve had so many instances now where the House of Commons has put forward important ideas that you’ve simply turned around and rejected.  And sometimes – I’m thinking particularly of our Climate Change Bill here as an example.  It went through the House of Commons twice, and yet you used the Senate, which you packed with your friends, and defeated candidates and fundraisers, some of whom are up on fraud charges now, and you used that Senate to defeat a bill that called for accountability of no matter which party would be in power in Canada … so that we could have a climate change plan that would actually move us forward.  It’s such a disrespect for democracy, Mr. Harper, that it really isn’t acceptable. 

Steven Harper: Let me explain our position on that Bill.  We’ve been strongly opposed to that Bill throughout.  The reason is that that Bill has no actual measures to achieve objectives.  It just sets targets.  You can’t achieve something by just setting a target.  You can’t just pass a bill declaring the unemployment rate to be 2%.  You actually have to have the measures that will achieve that. 

When it comes to Climate Change we’re working internationally on Copenhagen Accord, which now is a framework to include all emitters – that’s what we sought.  We’re working with the Obama administration on a continental approach for integrated industries – that’s something that the opposition parties asked for – and we’re continuing through this budget to invest billions of dollars in Green Energy and Energy efficiency.  That’s what Canadian wanted us to do and these are the investments we’re making…

Jack Layton: You’ve got to know where you’re going if you’re ever going to get there and that’s what that Bill was all about.  And you don’t want to take strong action on climate change.  I think most Canadians know that.  You prefer to subsidize your friends in the big oil companies. 

Despite being at little more than a minute and a half long, this exchange raises many important questions about Canada’s approach to fighting climate change.  It deserved a question of its own, and we’re going to spend some time taking a closer look.

The Climate Change Accountability Act

The Bill that they’re discussing is the Climate Change Accountability Act – a piece of thwarted legislation of such fame that it has its own Wikipedia page. It was first introduced by Mr. Layton in 2006 and was passed by the House of Commons with the support of the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois. After the 2008 election it was reintroduced by NDP MP Bruce Hyer, where it passed the House of Commons in 2010, again with support from the other opposition parties. It was then referred to the Senate where it was defeated in a controversial snap-vote and without debate last November.

So why was the Bill defeated?  Prime Minister Harper says that the Conservative Senators voted against the Bill because it “just sets targets.”

Setting the Targets

There are lots of laws out there that are largely about setting targets. At a basic level budget laws – including the budget that Prime Minister Harper says that this election is about – set financial targets for governments to meet. In the context of climate change, British Columbia’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Targets Act, passed in 2007 by a BC Liberal government, sets targets for greenhouse gas reductions which are similar to those found in the Climate Change Accountability Act. Similar targets have been set in other countries – notably the U.K. through its Carbon Budgeting process created under its Climate Change Act 2008. Setting targets is one of the main things that the governments of the world agreed to do at Copenhagen – in the agreement that Mr. Harper claims credit for. Indeed, the Canadian Government has its own (policy based) targets (which are widely viewed as weak). Setting targets is an important part of good planning. 

As he made clear at the time, Prime Minister Harper’s concern with the Climate Change Accountability Act is not that it “just sets targets” but that it sets targets that he believes are too strong:

[The Climate Change Accountability Act] sets irresponsible targets, doesn't lay out any measure of achieving them other than ... by shutting down sections of the Canadian economy and throwing hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of people out of work.  Of course, we will never support such legislation.

It’s probably worth emphasizing that the targets set by the Climate Change Accountability Act are consistent with what the Nobel Prize winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says is required to give the world a good chance of preventing run-away climate change, with all the resulting economic, social and environmental upheaval. Just last week Environment Canada scientists published an article (that the Vancouver Sun predicted could cause problems for the Conservatives during the election campaign) concluding that “limiting warming to roughly 2°C by the end of this century … requires an immediate ramp down of emissions….”

Interestingly, in 2009 the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation released a study showing that deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions could be made with only a minimal impact on Canada’s economic growth, but then Environment Minister, Jim Prentice, attacked the report as “irresponsible”.

In this way it essentially requires the government to come up with a “carbon budget” – a plan that shows how Canada will take responsibility for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to levels necessary to slow the rate of climate change. 

“No actual measures”

Mr. Harper is right that setting targets is a major focus of the Climate Change Accountability Act.  But even then he over-states the case when he claims that the Act contained “no measures to achieve those objectives.” 

In actual fact the Climate Change Accountability Act would have given the government broad powers to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, including such powers as:

  • requiring emitters to get licences or permits,
  • creating a cap and trade system,
  • setting standards, and
  • requiring provinces to limit their emissions.

Much of our environmental legislation works like this – setting broad objectives out in legislation but giving the government of the day the tools to create regulations that will achieve those objectives. 

Prime Minister Harper went on, during the election debates, to imply that his government has been achieving real action on climate change (as opposed to “just setting targets”). However, the federal government’s Environment and Sustainability Commissioner is predicting that the government will not achieve even its own modest targets for Greenhouse Gas reductions, slamming the government for not even collecting the data it needs to determine whether its climate change strategies are working or not:

Without a system to count real emission reductions that result from its measures, the government will not be able to inform Parliament whether the measures are working.

Conclusion and Questions for the other parties

In 2007 Prime Minister Harper described climate change as “perhaps the biggest threat to confront humanity today.” But in 2011 the Consortium that broadcast the Leaders’ debates thought that it was not necessary to raise the issue – or indeed any environmental issue – with the leaders. That’s a shame, because as the exchange between Mr. Layton and Mr. Harper demonstrates, there’s plenty of room for debate. 

It’s not just Prime Minister Harper who should have been asked questions about climate change. Perhaps Mr. Ignatieff could have been asked how a new Liberal government would be any different than previous ones that allowed greenhouse gas emissions to continue to rise. Or Mr. Layton might have had to explain how the NDP, which wants to regulate corporate emitters but which rejected the idea of a Carbon tax in the last federal election, would encourage or require Canadians to ramp down their individual emissions. 

As the David Suzuki Foundation has pointed out – if the Consortium won’t ask those difficult questions then it’s up to individual Canadians to raise them during this election campaign. Had a chat with any of your local candidates yet?

Andrewblogphoto.jpgBy Andrew Gage, Staff Lawyer

P.S. - We’ve written about the defeat of the Climate Change Accountability Act before. In fact, we used its defeat to highlight the difference in climate leadership shown by Conservative parties in Canada and Britain in an open letter to conservative-minded Canadians
The Pembina Institute has an excellent blog post for anyone seeking to understand the different parties' platforms on climate change.