Jen Gerson: Trudeau is more interested in a big COP26 reveal than the big job of being PM
When asked for details about this brave new plan, Minister Guilbeault didn’t have much to share … because the plan doesn’t exist yet.
If you're coming to today's column in The Line in search of an ornery Albertan outraged about emissions caps and "green equalization" I am going to disappoint you. Or, rather, I'm asking for the freedom to put my outrage on hold for a moment until I see the details of these proposals.
First, let's hear from Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet, who responded to the results of Alberta's pointless referendum on equalization thusly:
I know Albertans aren't going to be happy to hear that but, well, sheeet, he's got us all dead to rights there, doesn't he? Even if our petulant referendum did prompt a re-opening of the constitution, how can we be assured that Alberta's interests will prevail over Quebec's? If you've built an entire politico-grievance industry around the notion that the rest of Canada doesn't play nice with Alberta, why would they suddenly start now?
Any constitutional amendment would require the approval of seven provincial legislatures representing half the national population: which proposal do we imagine is going to pass, "Green Equalization" or "No Equalization"? I admit I have no formal polling on the matter, but if most Canadians can imagine they're fighting climate change under the auspices of raiding the petro piggy bank, they're going to cheer for team Separatist Leader on this one.
Holding a referendum on equalization and walking away from this self-imposed political drama with a worse deal than the one we started with would be pretty much par for the course for the current UCP government. Thanks for coming out, everyone.
Meanwhile in Glasgow, we've got Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promising an emissions cap on oil and gas at COP26. The cap will come down over some unspecified period of time so that Canada can achieve its goal of #NetZeroBy2050.
I'm going to start here by noting that an emissions cap isn't necessarily a bad idea; as always, the devil is in the details. Alberta already has a 100 MT emissions cap on the oil sands, which permits some hypothetical future growth. It also incentivizes the industry to come up with more innovative ways to produce and extract oil, which could lead to emissions-reducing technologies that can be exported to other parts of the world. I'm thinking here of carbon capture and storage technology, which is already being used in the oil sands despite some well-placed skepticism from the green set. We don’t appear to be talking about shutting down oil and gas wholesale, here: if the cap takes into consideration things like new technology and carbon offsets, it could be reasonable and achievable.
Secondly, another part of Trudeau's statement is quite right; he highlighted the importance of implementing a cost on carbon that is roughly equal around the world. Canada shooting its own nose off just to prove its moral worth is a pointless and counterproductive measure. Our entire country accounts for less than two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. We could kill the oil sands tomorrow, but unless we implement universal prices that reduce demand and shift incentives internationally, that supply gap is simply going to be filled by other oil reserves.
What troubles me is that the Liberals don't seem able to apply that logic domestically. Oil and gas accounts for roughly a quarter of the country's emissions. It is, thus, a fair target for a cap. But it doesn't make sense to crack down on this industry and gloss over the other 75 per cent — especially when we could be making great strides toward net zero by investing in things like nuclear energy to fuel our electricity supply. Add electric or hybrid vehicles to that mix, and we can also make a dent in our transportation emissions. Is this government serious about net zero, or is that just the phrase it’s using to turn Alberta into Canada’s climate change scapegoat? I guess we’ll see.
Yes, I know fellow Albertans will grumble about some of this, and fairly; shutting the entire country down would make little to no difference to climate change. But so what? Leadership is important here, and even if we don't have the power to alter the course of global emissions all by ourselves, watching First World nations take the lead will hopefully force others to follow. Meanwhile, we risk allowing ourselves to become technological laggards — falling behind on necessary infrastructure and new technology — if we continue to plan as if 1999 assumptions about energy mixes will hold for the indefinite future.
The problem, here, isn't that the prime minister wants to push the country in this direction: it's that he's making these grand announcements and promises in Glasgow well before he's ironed out any of the details in Edmonton.
In a rare moment of unity, both Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and NDP opposition leader Rachel Notley objected to Trudeau's announcements.
"I don't know why they would make an announcement like this without consulting with the province that actually owns the overwhelming majority of Canada's oil and gas reserve," said Kenney.
I mean, yeah. He's right.
When asked for actual details about this brave new plan at COP26, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault didn’t have much to share … because the plan doesn’t exist yet. It’s a plan to make a plan.
"We will need to be developing this, and that's exactly what we will be doing in the coming months," Guilbeault said, according to the CBC. Both he and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson have asked the net-zero advisory board to help them come up with a plan. "Specifically, we seek your advice on key guiding principles to inform the development of quantitative five-year targets," they said in a letter sent on Monday.
There's no path, here. There's been no discussion; no consultation, nothing. There's not even a draft of an idea.
So why is Trudeau getting on a stage in front of the world's leaders half-cocked with ambitious promises for an emissions cap before he's worked out the details at home?
To quote Line co-founder Matt Gurney during our weekly meeting: "To ask that question is to answer it."
Trudeau is signalling what he cares about and what he doesn't. He's more concerned with how the audience abroad perceives him than he is about the finer points of governing. It’s about getting back-pats by the Davos set, not actually running our embarrassing, open-pit G7 backwater.
It was hard to avoid the sense during the last election that Trudeau didn't have his heart in the fight; that he's more invested in acting the part of prime minister than being it.
I put little stock in rumours that the Liberal leader will soon leave his role — if you're going to act a part, after all, there are few better. And what a great platform it provides for a launch to better things. But I do wonder: If someone offered him a ranking job at the UN or the WEF or something else with a suitably impressive acronym and a travel expense account, how long would he stick around?
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