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Why Justin Trudeau's climate change policy is an impossible dream

The dynamics at any first ministers' conference are fraught. Throw in environmental politics and the meetings became more tense and troubled than usual.

The best that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the premiers and territorial leaders could do this week at their climate summit in Vancouver was a mostly vague and ultimately useless declaration that says they all care about rising greenhouse-gas emissions and believe a price needs to be put on carbon – but how that is ultimately defined is anyone's guess.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall is vehemently opposed to any type of common tax on carbon across the country. His province's great contribution to reducing GHG emissions is its billion-dollar investment in carbon capture and storage, a process in which carbon dioxide is captured from coal-fired power plants and sold to oil companies for use in extracting crude.

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Mr. Wall believes this should rate as a type of carbon pricing.

If that does end up qualifying under Mr. Trudeau's vision of a national carbon tax plan, then Canada's new climate strategy will indeed be the fraud many predict. But B.C. Premier Christy Clark confirmed that any coast-to-coast carbon pricing scheme may fall short of what purists consider a true carbon tax – otherwise, known as a levy that actually achieves its purpose of reducing GHG emissions.

Don't say you weren't warned, people.

Meantime, Saskatchewan's GHG emissions grew by 66 per cent from 1990 to 2013, according to Environment and Climate Change Canada. I guess Mr. Wall feels his province is already doing its fair share and doesn't need to do any more. But he's upset that Quebec, a province that actually has made some constructive moves to reduce emissions and is legitimately concerned about the environment, won't rubber-stamp Energy East. Maybe the foundational legs of Mr. Wall's objections wouldn't be as shaky as they are if his province wasn't such an environmental laggard.

Maybe if he signalled Saskatchewan was prepared, finally, to do more than it currently is (far more) to recognize the impending doom posed by climate change, Quebec might be more sympathetic to Mr. Wall's Energy East angst.

If I were Quebec, I'd say: You want Energy East, Mr. Wall? Put a true price on carbon the way we, Ontario, Alberta and B.C. have, and we'll talk.

The lame climate protocol agreement signed by the first ministers on Thursday wasn't terrific news for Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, either. She continues to receive intense political heat for boldly introducing a provincewide price on carbon that goes into effect next year. It would seem a lot less revolutionary if there were a price on carbon nationally. But if people such as Brad Wall can opt out of it, critics in Alberta are going to ask why Ms. Notley didn't do the same.

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It's not like her carbon tax has got her one bit closer to landing a pipeline.

Which brings us back to Ms. Clark, who is trying to pitch a plan to sell clean electricity to Alberta from the new $9-billion Site C dam the province is constructing. It is being sold by the B.C. Premier as a means of helping Alberta wean itself off of dirty coal-fired power. Ms. Clark would dearly love to nail this deal down, as it would be a big part of the province's GHG emissions-reduction strategy and go a long way to justifying a dam that has been otherwise hard to rationalize economically.

Ms. Notley can be forgiven if she's in less than a receptive mood.

Last month, Ms. Clark authorized a passage in the B.C. Speech from the Throne in which her government criticized Alberta for its profligate ways over the years. Alberta was used as a political prop and cautionary tale: This is what happens when you fail to demonstrate the same kind of fiscal restraint B.C. is illustrating.

It amounted to a 45-minute paid political advertisement ahead of next year's provincial election.

The month before that, B.C. rejected the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion, a project the Alberta government is counting on to get its oil to tidewater.

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I would think that Ms. Clark's negotiations with her neighbour on her Site C electricity pitch are going to be difficult to get off the ground.

If I were Rachel Notley, I'd politely tell her provincial counterpart to go stuff it. If Ms. Clark wants to sell her electricity to Alberta, she is going to have to approve a pipeline to the West Coast. That's just the way it goes.

Mr. Trudeau has made an international commitment to reduce Canada's greenhouse-gas emissions by 30 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. As things stand now, it is a goal that looks more than ever like an impossible dream.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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