The flurry of activity around Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement of a federal carbon tax last Monday was followed the next day by the release of the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy. The FSDS received much less attention, because it was not greeted with the provincial petulance about federal decisions that tends to generate headlines.
To be fair, there isn’t a lot of drama surrounding this document. Intended as an open working framework covering the next three years (to 2019), it identifies 13 strategic areas for Canada to focus on in relation to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.
I was glad to see the ongoing intention to revise and extend it — much wiser than attempting a strategy that tried to paper over its inevitable flaws — and there are some interesting tidbits buried in among the some of the unfortunate efforts to encourage sustainable consumption (like suggestions to unplug appliances and not let taps run).
For example, for Manitoba, there is a promise to continue funding the Experimental Lakes Area; another to contribute toward the reduction of phosphorus in Lake Winnipeg; money to fix the Lake St. Martin watershed problem; money for municipalities to fund infrastructure improvements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and so on. There was also the welcome intention to sign on again, as soon as possible, with the global initiative to combat desertification that Canada shamefully abandoned a couple of years ago.
But this strategy, however initial its steps, just does not go far enough. Nor does the $10-a-tonne federal carbon tax do much to save the planet, as critics have complained.
So why bother? Who cares about carbon?
First of all, it is clearly carbon-hunting season. Announcing a federal carbon tax is like firing off a warning shot in a marsh — it startles the less experienced ducks into flying straight up into the gunsights of the hunters. Bluster and splutter all they liked afterward, the premiers who demanded their environment ministers fly home from the conference right away made themselves into easy targets.
In the aftermath of our failure to meet Kyoto Accord goals, it is obvious that something — not nothing — needs to be done to meet the Paris goals. No one would claim that the $10 warning shot is enough, but it did serve to flush out the opposition.
As the Manitoba government moves toward coming up with its own plan — hopefully, it will also be an open framework that can adjust to a rapidly changing situation, but with enough specifics that we can get to work right away — there are a couple of key things to consider.
First, there needs to be some reason for the numbers that are advanced, either as emissions targets or to justify the amount of a carbon levy.
We could take a minimalist approach — Manitoba’s share of Canada’s reductions — and ignore any other argument about how we have contributed to the problem over time, or how many of our emissions are displaced to other locations because we buy what they manufacture. That would be simple, but unfair to people elsewhere who can afford far fewer alternatives than we enjoy. It also reflects no real hope that there will be enough of a planetary shift in how people live to make a difference for future generations.
Minimalism means ignoring the problem with the foundation by slapping on a new coat of paint — letting the person who buys your house watch it fall down around them while you escape with the cash you should have spent to fix it.
Premier Pallister’s decision for a “Made-in-Manitoba” solution has the potential for something more than this minimalist response, however. We could be global leaders, not provincial stragglers, if we developed a carbon policy intended to inspire cooperation rather than merely imposing a carbon tax to coerce it.
Our numbers need to be based on making Manitoba a carbon-negative province.
If we consider all the dimensions of the Manitoba landscape, we have many different resources to mobilize and develop to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while we develop ways to take more carbon out of the air than we emit.
Second, the carbon tax by itself will not enable us to reach any goal, however minimalist. It would need to be something like $300 a tonne to have significant effects on consumer behaviour. Even then, that tax would not be of much use if there were no alternative ways to get to work or to heat our houses.
The tax will put some pressure on business and consumer behaviour to reduce their GHG emissions, but the money should be used to create alternatives; to promote the research, development and deployment of green technologies and to nudge people and their communities to take responsibility for how they choose to live.
After all, the society that lives for today at the expense of tomorrow has no future, while the society that lives for tomorrow at the expense of today will never survive to reach it.
We need to balance these two realities, in a pragmatic and timely fashion, right here at home in Manitoba.
Peter Denton teaches the history of technology at the University of Winnipeg and chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.
This article was originally printed in the Winnipeg Free Press.