My latest column in The StarPhoenix
De Souza, a Postmedia reporter out of Ottawa, has chronicled how Prime Minister Stephen Harper has for years politicized climate change. I didn’t expect a change just because Kent was now Canada’s Environment minister.
While Harper originally just ignored the environment, once the Liberals elected former Environment minister Stephane Dion as leader, it became a partisan issue. Dion wanted a "Green Shift" where the government moved taxes off incomes and applied it to carbon consumption in order to change consumer behavior and reward alternative sources of energy and conservation. The U.K. had introduced a similar tax in 2006 and while no new tax is popular, the sky hadn’t fallen.
Unlike Dion, however, former British prime minister Tony Blair understood one doesn’t run an election campaign on a new tax. Harper’s Conservatives said it would be a job killer and lead Canada into a recession and what we needed instead was a prime minister who wore sweater vests and stuck to the status quo.
The debate wasn’t a fair one as Dion proved to be a horrible campaigner, the Conservatives launched devastating attack ads and Dion overestimated the urgency Canadian’s felt on the issue.
It wasn’t surprising to see Dion go down in defeat, but I was a shocked to hear our prime minister suggest that Canadian companies couldn’t compete with American and Chinese companies if we didn’t emit the same level of greenhouse gases.
Although the U.S. and China have taken steps to cut greenhouse gases, Harper’s plan was for Canada to do very little until 2020 or 2025, and it would be 2050 before anything was fully implemented. In other words they were going to do nothing and leave it for someone else.
It may have been good politics (we keep re-electing him) but it’s horrible long term economic policy. It protects weak companies that can’t adapt and innovate to new standards. Those weak companies hire lobbyists whose job it is to protect the status quo, so we constantly hear dire predictions of doom and societal collapse.
Companies who can innovate tend to be out making money and so we don’t hear as much from them.
While we rejected the Green Shift, we see other industrialized countries take advantage of aggressive emission targets, invest in renewable energy and conservation efforts, and adopt carbon taxes to remake their economies. Even China is desperately trying to conserve, cut, and develop new technologies.
The result is predictable. China is becoming the world leader in carbon capture and clean coal technology, Japan’s households are more than twice as efficient as Canadian ones, and Europe is leading the way in renewables. What’s more depressing is that they are accomplishing this in markets where North American companies once were leaders but have had to pull out of because of a lack of government leadership.
When government does show leadership, companies respond. Energy policy isn’t glamorous but it can have a huge impact. Thomas Friedman writes about the Tier II emissions standard that applies to diesel locomotives in his book, Hot, Flat & Crowded. General Electric looked at the new emissions standard and completely redesigned its Evolution locomotives to comply.
The result was a low emission, fuel efficient and more reliable locomotive that is being exported around the world.
China purchased 300 of them despite manufacturing locomotives themselves.
Friedman asks why China purchased GE’s Evolution locomotives rather than their own state built one. They can’t match the emission targets that the U.S. government set and GE met. GE is pushing the U.S. government for even tougher standards in the future because they know they have the engineering and business acumen to benefit from the changes.
Kent has the same opportunity before him. There is a tremendous upside to any time of change and disruption and his department has the ability in several areas to both make a difference in our environmental record (which is joke around the world) and also create new opportunities and markets for Canadian companies.
The cost of inaction isn’t just rising emissions. Canadian manufacturers will be playing technological catch up against low-cost competitors once Canada does get serious about climate change.
The Harper government isn’t just playing politics with the environment – they are playing politics with our entire economy. If they doubt me, they can read more about it in Peter Kent’s briefing notes.
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