In a recent column Andrew Coyne repeats his usual disdain for common action by Canada’s provincial and territorial governments.  In his view joint action by provincial governments will result in: « widely varying targets, generally inadequate and largely unenforced, pursued by the stupidest, costliest means possible. » I strongly disagree for at least two reasons.

First, as Coyne himself makes clear, the provinces are taking action in part because of an abdication of responsibility by the Government of Canada.  Without a doubt, a common national approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions would be much better than a series of uncoordinated provincial responses.  But it is precisely the absence of pan-Canadian action that makes the various initiatives by the provinces all the more important.  With the recent announcement by Ontario that it is joining with Quebec in adopting a cap and trade approach to reducing greenhouse gases, if you add B.C. which has a tax on carbon emissions, fully 75% of the Canadian population is covered by serious efforts to address climate change.

Second, Coyne clearly favours a simple straight tax on carbon emissions rather than a cap and trade system.  In his words, a cap and trade system will « narrow the scope for reducing emissions » and « invariably opens the way for business to lobby for special treatment. » He is also sceptical of the promise by Ontario to reinvest revenues from its cap and trade arrangement into projects that reduce emissions anticipating « failed schemes ». Maybe, but then again, maybe not. Absent any meaningful action by the federal government, something is better than nothing. In the face of industry lobbying the initial scope of Ontario’s cap and trade arrangement may not be as robust as one might want.  Yet it seems to me that the key is to get a system in place which can be tightened up over time allowing an opportunity for firms to adjust.  As for the reinvestment, the government of Ontario Premier Wynne is strongly committed to making major investments in public transit. These will reduce our collective reliance on cars which, in turn, will put downward pressure on greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, a cap and trade approach is not the stupidest or the costliest approach. As Coyne himself observes, trying to use command and control regulation of greenhouse gas emissions is economically much more costly. This is not what Ontario and Quebec are doing. It is what the Harper government promises to do.

If there is a weak spot in the efforts by provinces to reduce greenhouse gas emissions it is the failure, at least so far, to find a way to get Alberta and Saskatchewan to take serious action. The exploitation of the oil sands and heavy oil are by far the largest source of the increase in Canadian CO2 emissions over the past few years. If Canada is to make a meaningful contribution to the global challenge of climate change, slowing the growth of emissions of the oil and gas sector is critical. Premier Prentice is not attending the climate meetings in Quebec City.  This is not a good sign.

That being said, it may be that the only concrete result of the meetings this week is that they provided a deadline and a platform for Ontario to announce a cap and trade approach to reduce greenhouse gas emission. This is not a comprehensive national strategy. But it remains an important step forward. Alas, Andrew Coyne’s deeply rooted scepticism about what provincial governments can do individually and collectively blinds him to the innovation that is happening in Ontario and elsewhere.

(An earlier version of this post mistakenly suggested that Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall did not attend the Quebec City meeting.)

Patrick Fafard
Patrick Fafard is the associate director of the Global Strategy Lab and a full professor in the Graduate School of Public & International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

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