This article originally appeared in the National Post.
By Ken Coates, June 20, 2022
Canadians largely agree that climate change is a problem and that human actions are accelerating environmental and climactic change. Yet, on the best way to address this, vast differences remain.
The Liberal government has its preferred solutions: carbon taxes that return much of the revenue to consumers, a raft of subsidies and industrial incentives, taxes on large vehicles, major restrictions on the oil and gas industry and repeated lectures about cutting back on personal consumption.
The Conservative party still hates carbon taxes, although its opposition has softened. Conservatives mostly differ from the Liberals on the speed and intensity of the required changes.
However, forces unrelated to climate change, most notably Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have upset all planning horizons. Europe’s transition to less carbon-intensive fuels has now been forced to take a backseat to other concerns. Soaring fuel costs are driving inflation up and causing political unrest around the world.
There are simple lessons in this turmoil. Ideological positions, like those currently held by the Trudeau government, are more than risky — they’re dangerous. Decisions made over the past decade have undermined Canada’s ability to help our European allies with their energy needs, leaving that continent on the verge of deep distress. This problem will only grow in the months ahead.
There is good news, though: society is adjusting with new technologies and emerging energy systems. Solar and wind generation are proving more viable than many skeptics believed. The development of small modular nuclear reactors is moving quickly. Electric vehicles remain more status symbols than a comprehensive solution, but auto manufacturers are making improvements and consumer acceptance is growing.
Yet there are also warning signs. Federal energy policy is, once again, fuelling East-West tensions in Canada. Two of the country’s signature industries — fossil fuels and automobile production — face uncertain futures, as do thousands of related companies selling gas and cars and servicing legacy vehicles. At the same time, rising inflation and interest rates are pushing millions of Canadians to the brink of financial ruin.
Luckily, Canada has options. Major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is achievable, but the country need not — and will not — get there tomorrow. The world requires more oil and gas, particularly fossil fuels that are produced to high ecological and moral standards. Canada must be a major participant, but it requires a clear and thoughtful emissions-reduction plan tied to a strategy for maintaining Canadians’ standard of living.
The country needs to keep its economy strong, and growing, to protect our enviable quality of life. Investments should continue in renewable energy and nuclear power. Canada should accelerate work on electric vehicles and related infrastructure. Home, commercial and industrial solar power installations should be expanded, but only where economically feasible.
Rather than talking about climate change, the country should become a world leader in the manufacture and deployment of electric airplanes and motorboats. Picking up on a Liberal promise in the 2022 budget, Canada should move quickly to develop critical mineral production, supply chains and manufacturing capacity for the electric power sector. This would require an unprecedented level of co-operation with Indigenous communities and governments, along with streamlined mining project approval and assessment processes.
Canada should adopt a more practical environmental assessment process, in order to strike a more reasonable balance between economic development and ecological protection. If Canadian natural gas, produced under some of the highest environmental standards in the world, is sold to countries weaning themselves off of coal, then this should be counted as part of Canada’s emissions reductions.
We should control the import of foreign energy supplies, particularly from countries with weak environmental and human rights standards. Quebec’s hypocrisy on energy supplies is particularly egregious, as it entails banning oil and gas exploration within the province, while damming northern rivers and buying overseas oil.
A balanced, rational approach to energy security is urgently required. Oil and gas production should, if anything, be expanded. Current pipelines must be completed, and new ones contemplated. Emission-reduction efforts related to Canadian energy production and resource development must be continued and improved.
Most importantly, the one-size-fits-all approach to energy issues — from carbon taxes to electrification — is inherently unjust to rural, small town and northern areas. Regulations that make sense in major urban centres can be destructive and unnecessary in remote communities. The approach needs surgical tools not blunt instruments.
The main climate change battle has been won. Addressing emissions is now a priority. Let’s find a policy approach that works for Canadians, sustains our standard of living, supports our allies and replaces rhetoric with practicality and results.
Ken Coates is a Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Indigenous Affairs Program at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a professor at the University of Saskatchewan.