CANADA

A new mantra

The Liberals try to green up their image

JOHN DeMONT November 17 1997
CANADA

A new mantra

The Liberals try to green up their image

JOHN DeMONT November 17 1997

A new mantra

CANADA

The Liberals try to green up their image

Ostensibly, the event was a party fund-raiser. But the Maple Leaf dinner in Ottawa last week was also meant to showcase the federal government’s sudden transformation from deficit-obsessed cost-cutter to greener-thanthou environmentalist. The 1,200 Grit loyalists sat through five minutes of slides showing frolicking polar bears, golden wheat fields and pristine lakes. Then, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien devoted most of his speech to hammering home the government’s commitment to combating global warming—an issue over which it has taken a drubbing lately inside and outside the country. But a new mantra was clearly not enough to establish the Liberals as true environmentalists. Two days later, the political opposition was pillorying the government over Atomic Energy Canada’s willingness to forgo its own environmental laws so it can peddle two Candu nuclear reactors to Turkey. “Why does the Prime Minister pre-

tend to be Mr. Green Thumb at home,” thundered Reform MP Deborah Grey in the House of Commons, “yet around the world he’s known as Mr. Uranium.”

Last week, everywhere Chrétien and the Liberals turned they were taking it on the chin over the environment. But most of the talk was about a policy that threatens to set off yet another epic federal-provincial battle. At issue: the newly green government’s strategy—yet to be formally announced— for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. last week’s speech did little to erase the current perception that the government is in disarray, making policy on the run as it prepares for a December summit in Kyoto, Japan, where a global treaty on greenhouse gases is expected to be signed. “We can still make cutting greenhouse gases a political winner,” maintains a high-ranking Chrétien aide. Perhaps, but after fumbling the issue badly so far, that sort of comeback poses an

immense challenge—even for a government not caught as the Grits are in a crossfire between foreign governments and homegrown environmentalists on one side and the resource-rich Western provinces on the other.

WHhether the government can pull it off should become abundantly clear this week, as the country’s environment and natural resources ministers meet in Regina to hear Ottawa’s plan for cutting emissions. Both federal Environment Minister Christine Stewart and Ralph Goodale, the natural resources minister, have promised the provinces lots of input as Canada refines a policy to take to Japan. But the government may in fact not do much refining. Chrétien has made his intentions clear: top the United States’ modest goal—among the weakest of any among the 150 nations gathering in Kyoto—of reducing emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2012.

That kind of commitment could at least

give the Prime Minister North American bragging rights. But it is likely to draw heat from the 15 countries of the European Union, who have been sharply critical of Canada for allowing greenhouse gas emissions to climb by 13 per cent throughout the 1990s, despite a pledge by the Mulroney government at the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil to keep 1990 levels steady through to the new millennium.

How the soon-to-be-announced federal policy plays in the Western energy patch, on the other hand, will depend on the specifics which will be worked out after Kyoto. Chrétien has repeatedly ruled out a carbon tax: a direct levy on industries that produce global-warming emissions as a byproduct of burning fossil fuels. (Ottawa insiders suggest Chrétien may be trading off the carbon tax for support further down the road from Alberta Premier Ralph Klein for a federal unity proposal for Quebec.) “We are not interested in singling out or weakening one region or one industry,” the Prime Minister stressed last week. That leaves Ottawa with a number of options: foremost, a broad-based tax that would hit all energy users equally.

Last week, Chrétien also floated the idea that Canada should receive credits for exporting a service or product—like the controversial Candu reactors bound for Turkey—that helps reduce emissions in another country. In Regina, Newfoundland Energy Minister Chuck Furey will ask Ottawa to use a similar credit system to help finance the development of the Lower Churchill Falls hydroelectric project. If all the power from that project is used within Canada, Furey claims greenhouse gas emissions could be lowered by 20 per cent. “It’s a grand slam,” Furey told Maclean’s.

Whatever the government decides, provincial co-operation—which is critical for the government to implement any deal struck in Kyoto—is anything but a given. If it tries to act heavy-handed, Ottawa will have a fight on its hands. In an interview with Maclean’s last week, Alberta Environment Minister Ty Lund—who earlier hinted his province might secede if Ottawa instituted a carbon tax—insists Alberta will not knuckle under to any agreement that the federal government makes in Kyoto that does not have the province’s approval. ‘What we’re saying to the feds is if they sign on to something not approved by the provinces, they’re on their own and we’ll be out of it,” Lund warns.

No surprise that with the Kyoto countdown under way, everyone on either side of the issue has started sounding jumpy. Last week, the country’s coal companies took out full-page newspaper ads warning that Ottawa would be committing “economic suicide” if it cracked down too severely on emissions. And western opinion leaders like Calgary open-line radio host Dave Ruther-

ford were filling the airwaves with a level of anti-Ottawa, anti-Liberal rhetoric not heard since the days of the hated National Energy Program, brought in by Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government. “My listeners feel that as soon as you get a level of economic prosperity, Ottawa wants a piece of it,” explains Rutherford, whose show runs five days a week. “The science has not been clarified

The EU has criticized Canada's record on greenhouse gases

one way or the other and there is this idea out there that this is an engineered crisis.” The green faction has also turned up the volume. Last week, the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation unveiled a report by former Environment Canada globalwarming negotiator Doug Russell, which blamed public apathy and extensive lobbying by coal and oil companies for the government’s failure to grapple with emissions. But the apathy part, at least, seems to have changed. A poll released last week by the Suzuki foundation and conducted by

Environics International Ltd. last July, shows that the vast majority of Canadians want the federal government to meet or exceed its 1992 greenhouse gas commitment. That underscores what Chrétien’s advisers already know—as the Canadian economy has rebounded, the environment is once again a hot topic with Canadians. “Global warming is an issue in which we can take the high road and still win politically,” points out a Grit adviser with strong links to the Alberta oilpatch.

Not everyone in Ottawa remains so convinced. As the federal government tried to hammer out its Kyoto proposal, cabinet was split. On one side was the pro-industry group, led by Goodale and including Industry Minister John Manley and Justice Minister Anne McLellan, the sole Alberta representative at the cabinet table. They argued against coming down too hard. Countering them were Stewart, Health Minister Allan Rock and an array of greener cabinet colleagues, including Transport Minister David Collenette, who say tougher measures are needed. Eventually, with no consensus in sight, a worried Chrétien jumped in to end the stalemate. “We got there,” laments one senior Liberal, “but it was ugly.” After Kyoto, it may well get uglier still.

JOHN DeMONT

DALE EISLER