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Justin Trudeau Subjects Canada’s Premiers to a Science Class Before Paris Climate Summit

Trudeau’s climate plan largely rests on the idea that the provinces should be the ones to price carbon — and, in turn, keep the revenue. But it’s unclear if their individual goals are enough to hit Canada's national targets.

by Justin Ling
Nov 24 2015, 3:15am

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Even if Monday's high-profile meeting between Canada's federal and provincial governments didn't produce much in the way of new commitments, it did strike a very new tone.

After years of government climate scientists complaining that the, now-ousted, Harper government had "muzzled" their research, two were given center stage at Monday's cross-governmental meeting, tasked with giving a rundown of the available research to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the premiers, media, and a collection of secondary school students.

The briefing consisted of a high school-level 24-page powerpoint presentation that very clearly laid out the failure of the developed world to reduce its carbon output, and the risk for doing so, and was a clear break from his predecessors' apathetic attitude towards climate change. But it may have also served as a clear warning to his provincial counterparts that he is taking this seriously, and that they should too.

After all, they pointed out, Canada is heating up at twice the rate of other countries.

The meeting was set up by the prime minister in order to get the provinces on the same page before the Paris climate conference at the end of November. Trudeau will be bringing the provincial leaders with him to the conference, and vowed that within three months of the international summit, he will hold a second meeting with the provinces in order to sign a national plan to combat climate change. While most of the provinces are onside with the federal Liberals, not everyone seems interested in Trudeau's plan.

Ontario and Quebec, the two most populous provinces, have signed onto a continent-wide cap-and-trade system that requires industry to purchase carbon permits based on how much CO2 they put into the atmosphere or, alternatively, to sell off their unnecessary permits if they pollute less. Their markets will link up to California, which has a similar model.

British Columbia and oil-rich Alberta, meanwhile, have adopted carbon taxes.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, the first leftist elected in Alberta since 1930, took the stage on Monday night as part of the event. Days earlier, her government unveiled the aggressive carbon tax that would, eventually, charge industry $30 per tonne of CO2. Considering that Alberta produces more than a third of Canada's CO2 emissions, thanks in large part to the oil sands and the coal-fire plants that power them, the plan was immediately heralded, by Trudeau and others, as ambitious.

"I think that our plan will do a very good job in terms of changing the conversation about whether you can be an energy producer and also a responsible contributor to action on climate change," Notley told media before the meeting.

Notley has also phrased that sort of carbon-reducing policy as a prime way to market Alberta's oil to green-minded governments, especially the American Government.

Related: Canada's Oil-Rich Province Is Bringing in a Carbon Tax and Justin Trudeau Is Thrilled

Other provinces have set emission limits, but have not formally priced carbon. Many of those who haven't — like Nova Scotia and Manitoba — are not huge contributors to Canada's emissions.

One of the big laggards, though, is Saskatchewan. The prairie province, which has substantial oil and potash assets, is one of only three provinces to increase its CO2 output between 2005 and 2013, the last year for which there is data. Saskatchewan, just 3 percent of Canada's population, contributes 10 percent of its CO2 emissions.

On the federal level, this is no carbon price — and Trudeau has explicitly said that he does not intend to set one — but there is a reduction target, originally drawn up by the Harper government. That target, which Trudeau has not changed, seeks to reduce Canada's CO2 output by 30 percent, below 2005 levels, by 2030.

His minister responsible for climate change, Catherine McKenna, has called that target a "floor" and hopes to surpass it.

Trudeau's plan largely rests on the idea that the provinces should be the ones to price carbon — and, in turn, keep the revenue. But while many of the provinces are already on board, it's unclear if their individual goals are enough to hit the national targets that Trudeau hopes to achieve.

And Brad Wall, premier of Saskatchewan, has indicated that he may be a roadblock in reaching that goal.

Related: French Authorities Ban Big Marches During UN Climate Talks in Paris

Speaking to reporters before the meetings on Monday, Wall said that while he supports having a plan to tackle climate change "we need to make sure we understand what impact that is going to have on jobs."

After the meeting, Wall and Trudeau were asked about the seeming distance between their two positions.

Wall highlighted that the energy section in his province has already been hit hard by falling oil prices. "We need to go to Paris with a plan, but let's make sure that that plan understands completely what impact we might be having on Saskatchewan, Albertan, and Canadian families that depend on the energy sector for their livelihoods."

Wall added that if Trudeau were to propose a carbon tax that kept revenues in the hands of the federal government, that would be a "nonstarter."

Trudeau, before iterating that his plan highlights the uniqueness of each province, said simply: "you can ask Premier Wall about it."

Wall, for his part, repeated his concerns with pricing carbon — concerns, he says, were voiced around the table with his counterparts — and added that, when it comes to his province's energy sector, "we need to ensure that we are doing no harm."

Generally, though, Trudeau can count on a considerable amount of political loyalty from the premiers. Only four Canadian provinces are governed by conservatives — British Columbia, the Yukon, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland — the latter of which has an election scheduled for November 30 that will almost certainly sweep the Liberals into power. 

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter: @Justin_Ling