Canadian Climate Change Policy: Lessons from the provinces

By Philip Gass, Brendan Boyd on November 17, 2015

At the tail end of November, Canada’s newly-elected Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, will attend the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 21) in Paris.

Domestic and international eyes will be watching as the new leader, and his ministers, have promised a more cooperative and engaged stance on climate change policy than the previous Conservative Government.

One of the early indications that Canada has evolved in its climate change policy is Trudeau’s promise to bring provincial premiers to the Paris summit and meet with them prior to the event to discuss the nation’s plans for moving forward. The prime minister has indicated his preference for a national greenhouse gas mitigation goal or standard, but favours allowing the provinces to decide the best way to reach it, be it regulation, carbon pricing, or some other approach.

Trudeau, along with many others, has recognized that over the last decade Canada's provinces have taken the lead in developing a range of solutions to address climate change. These include a carbon tax in British Columbia; a cap-and-trade system in Quebec; coal phase out, renewable energy strategies, and a soon-to-be implemented carbon pricing system in Ontario; and a hybrid system of tax and trading for large emitters in Alberta that will be evolving into a more traditional carbon tax approach in the future. In fact, in the absence of federal carbon pricing policies, Canada has evolved as a series of provincial policy labs for a wide arrange of pricing and regulatory strategies to address GHG mitigation.

With renewed engagement from Ottawa on climate change, the question emerges: what role should provinces play in Canada’s climate change policy moving forward?

Provinces should be viewed as “first-movers” whose efforts have set the stage for future action and their historical role should be entrenched through flexible federal policy. Provinces have pushed Canada’s climate change agenda forward by marshalling political capital, organizing government and bureaucratic resources and experimenting with a range of innovative policy solutions. There is much that can be learned from provincial experience on climate change and their involvement in national policy should be as an equal partner as opposed to a subordinate.

What is more, many provincial policies have proven durable through changing political and economic circumstances. BC, Alberta and Quebec’s pricing systems have all survived elections and varying economic conditions during their development or operation phases, and in some cases have emerged even stronger. After the historic election of the New Democratic Party in Alberta, the province has committed to a carbon tax approach that will cover roughly 80-90 percent of emissions, while also committing to phase out coal energy generation. In the lead up to COP 21 both Ontario and Quebec announced deeper GHG mitigation targets for 2030, while Manitoba indicated it may be the latest jurisdiction to move towards carbon pricing, with details expected in early December.  

The resiliency of provincial carbon pricing initiatives suggests that they are here to stay, they will not easily be replaced, and that it will be up to the federal government to match their ambition, as opposed to the federal government setting ambition for these provinces.How can Ottawa bring better coordination to the various provincial approaches to climate change across the country? The answer, once again, lies in the provinces themselves. Several provinces have attempted to overcome regional differences and work together on climate change through voluntary collaborative arrangements, with each other and US states. Organizations like the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) and New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers sought to establish regional GHG targets and/or a joint carbon markets which would allow for inter-jurisdictional trading of emission credits.

Many foundational policies, institutions and relationships have been established which can facilitate further collaboration and policy development, bringing more jurisdictions into the fold. This is mostly clearly seen in Ontario’s decision to participate in regional carbon trading.A federal government that is looking to bring coordination and cohesiveness to disparate policies across the country should build upon voluntary provincial collaboration. Even Alberta, which did not participate in WCI, cooperated around foundational policies such as regulations for measuring and tracking emission reductions. This suggests that there may be more common ground between provincial governments on climate change than is often recognized; a starting point for national cooperation.

While scientific evidence calls for immediate climate action, political and regulatory realities necessitate patience and a long-term approach, and the Canadian Government has committed to follow up with provinces and territories within 90 days of COP 21 to set the path forward. Success depends both on national coordination and continued motivation to build on the incremental progress we are seeing in the lead up to Paris. This mantra will serve the new prime minister well as he seeks to move climate policy forward in a country that has an appetite for international leadership, yet faces distinct regional realities that complicate and challenge national strategies. 

Authors: Philip Gass is a senior researcher with IISD's Energy Program. Brendan Boyd is a recent Ph.D graduate from the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria. This commentary draws on Dr. Boyd's Ph.D dissertation, available here