December 4-11, 2006

Commentary: Climate change certain to dominate 2007 political agenda

By: Colin Isaacs

One issue, climate change, is almost certain to be the major environmental issue in Ottawa in 2007, the last year before the beginning of the first commitment period (2008 - 2012) under the Kyoto Protocol.

The political fiasco of the Clean Air Act is now leading to parliamentary committee hearings that will be a climate change circus with major media coverage. Numerous conferences and reports will also draw press attention, including the fourth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), due late next year. It will be updated and much stronger than the last, released in 2001.

While Canadian industry will likely sidestep mandatory greenhouse gas emission reduction and reporting requirements for another year, the storm clouds are gathering for what could be a very challenging situation for industry in subsequent years.

Nailing down a greenhouse gas strategy has become an urgent political necessity for both the Conservatives and the Liberals. Prime Minister Harper faces a major challenge on this file. After nearly a year as Environment Minister, Rona Ambrose has still not learned the file and has become a broken record with her "blame the Liberals" strategy.

This strategy is increasingly angering voters who know that the Liberals did not cause climate change and who recall very well that, in opposition, Stephen Harper was urging the Liberal government not to act on climate change. Public support for re-engaging with the Kyoto Protocol and for immediate action on reducing emissions is running high in all provinces, including Alberta and especially Quebec.

The Ottawa rumour mill is predicting that the PM will soon replace his Environment Minister with someone more capable of quelling the rising political storm. But having just lost one minister over the Quebec resolution, Harper may be reluctant to replace another. More likely he will appoint a new minister for climate change, possibly within the Natural Resources Canada framework.

In either scenario, Harper is a little short of politically and environmentally skilled candidates. The obvious candidate, Alberta MP Bob Mills, could bring a very good set of skills and knowledge to the file, but is reported to have rejected possible appointment as Environment Minister because of his differences with Harper on this very issue. It is doubtful whether there is anyone else in the Conservative caucus who could solve the climate change challenge for the government in time for an election in the fall, or possibly even spring of 2007.

An exercise with high risks for industry is currently being played out by the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE). Under its chair, former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray, the NRTEE has revived its original role as a catalyst for change. At the same time, it has been co-opted as a climate change advisor to Environment Minister Ambrose.

One major project provides the government with advice on a set of "wedges" which could easily be set in place as mandatory emission reduction targets for a wide range of industry sectors. This is not at all what NRTEE intends but, lacking any other useful political advice on the GHG file, some very stressed politicians may be all too tempted to turn a document the NRTEE released in June concluding that we could meet a 60% by 2050 reduction target into a strategy for meeting that target (EcoWeek June 26, 2006).

In an effort to keep the issue off the election agenda, major policy and program decisions on climate change action will be made in the Prime Minister's office, most likely in the first quarter of 2007, and they will be based entirely on political considerations with little regard for economic impact or environmental effectiveness.

The other important set of key decisions will be made in Liberal campaign headquarters and will similarly be based primarily on political considerations. Whoever wins power in 2007 will implement their climate change promises very soon after the election.

There is no doubt that 2007 will define the size and shape of the climate change hammer that drops on Canadian industry in 2008. Unfortunately, whether it is a Conservative hammer or a Liberal hammer, history shows that initiatives developed in response to political crises are rarely properly considered.

Details of the NRTEE "wedges," many of which have the characteristics of hammers, can be found at www.nrtee-trnee.ca/eng/programs/Current_Programs/Energy-Climate-Change/EEC-Wedge-Advisory-Note/ECC-Wedge-advisory-note_e.pdf.

Colin Isaacs, head of the CIAL Group and publisher of the Gallon Environmental Letter, reviews environment-related trends in policy (government and corporate) and legislation for EcoWeek. Comments may be E-mailed to cisaacs@compuserve.com.

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