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Why Prime Minister Harper’s climate needle will move in 2015

A version of this post was publishd by the Globe and Mail here:

Compass on map

Sometimes, not often, it’s fun to watch Canadian climate policy. Take for example, the Prime Minister’s climate change moves of the last month. First, at the G20 Summit in Brisbane, the Prime Minister committed $300 million to the United Nation’s Green Climate Fund. Then a few weeks later he was up in the House of Commons extolling the economic craziness of climate policy. But just this week the Prime Minister tempered his climate craziness with a nod to Alberta’s GHG system regulating Oil Sands, saying in his annual year-end interview that Alberta has a model that could be broadly applicable. Huh?

So just what is going on with the Prime Minister and what can we expect in 2015?

First, in 2015 Canada will commit to new long-term GHG reductions. Canada has to stand up in front of the international community at the Conference of the Parties in December 2015 (COP21) and commit to long-term emission reductions. Expect Canada to come forward in the first quarter of 2015 with a long-term emission reduction pledge and even perhaps, a climate change plan.

Peer pressure from world leaders will be significant on the Prime Minister to bring forward a plan to somewhat aligned with the future GHG aspirations with comparator countries such as the United States. There will also be pressure to bring forward new policies that will increase ambition in the lead up to 2020 and at least start to somewhat close Canada’s Copenhagen gap. One plausible federal response is to announce a series of sector-by-sector regulations aimed at large emitters that are now more or less finalized. While these pending regulations will not seek significant GHG reductions, they would nevertheless provide talking points on the world stage highlighting enhanced ambition.

Second, Alberta is likely to update its oil and gas GHG regulations in 2015, as indicated by the six-month extension announced just this week. Despite the sudden impoverishment of the oil and gas sector, the reality is that an updated Alberta GHG system will cost pennies on the barrel. With market access now tied so painfully to GHG performance, Alberta is currently weighing, at the highest levels, all its GHG policy options. Alberta and the federal government have been negotiating joint oil and gas regulations for over two years, and if Alberta moves, in all likelihood the federal government will need to do something.

Finally, anything could happen in an election year. The Prime Minister seems especially deft at the political pivot on the climate file. Prior to Stephane Dion’s carbon tax shift in Election 2007, the Prime Minister was committed to carbon pricing through his Turning the Corner plan. Then with Jack Layton in Election 2011 stumping on cap and trade, carbon pricing for the conservative party really became the job killing carbon tax it is today. This politicization of instrument choice in Elections 2007 and 2011 leaves us with the sector-by-sector regulatory mess we have today.

With the liberals now gun shy on all talk of carbon pricing and the ghosts of Stephane Dion past, the Prime Minister might sense a vacuum and an opportunity to carve out some political space on climate in Election 2015. You may snicker, but this is a plausible [albeit painfully ironic] scenario for 2015.

So what can we expect from climate policy in 2015? The clear answer is anything is possible. But with an election looming and the Road to Paris 2015 paved with international photo opportunities and world leader elbow rubbing, expect the Prime Minister to move on climate in 2015. Indeed, it could be a fun year to watch Canadian climate policy. That is of course if you don’t get too contorted over our steadily rising emissions.

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