Harper plans Clean Air Act as substitute for Kyoto

PM recognizes environment issue as key to his re-election with a majority

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The Gazette, Friday, August 11, 2006

The Harper government will propose a Clean Air Act as the centrepiece of its "made-in-Canada plan" to address climate change.

The government is on a time-line to unveil the Clean Air Act, and accompanying Green Plan II, between Labour Day and the return of Parliament in the last week of September.

The environmental plan will be Harper's answer to the question, if not Kyoto, what? The communications messages around it, and the third-party endorsements it receives, will be crucial to its credibility and acceptance by voters.

Under the Kyoto framework, Canada is supposed to reduce its CO2 emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2008-2012. Instead, under the Liberals, emissions rose by 24 per cent, to

30 per cent above the target, which is simply unachievable. Even Stephane Dion, the former Liberal environment minister, now admits that.

The problem with scrapping Kyoto is that while the targets are unattainable, it has huge brand equity, especially in Quebec. Focus groups conducted for the federal government confirm that while hardly anyone has the slightest idea of what's in Kyoto, nearly everyone thinks it's a good thing.

"Kyoto stands for clean air and clean water, and that's what people want," says one member of the cabinet priorities and planning committee who has sat in on presentations.

But nothing prevents Canada from remaining a Kyoto signatory while proceeding down its own path. And Stephen Harper is proceeding, at a rather brisk pace.

While the plan is being developed over the summer by Environment Minister Rona Ambrose and her staff, it's being run from the centre by senior officials of the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office. A senior member of Harper's PMO staff, Bruce Carson, is also serving as Ambrose's acting chief of staff. Among senior officials, it isn't just the new deputy minister of the environment, Michael Horgan, on the case, but deputies in other departments such as Agriculture and Health. That means a government-wide approach, and it involves the clerk of the Privy Council, Kevin Lynch, the prime minister's own deputy.

Why a Clean Air Act? Take a look out your window on a hot summer day. In the Greater Toronto Area, the richest pool of votes in the country, the No.1 environmental concern of voters is air pollution and smog. Getting away from it all is why Torontonians spend six hours in their cars spewing emissions into the air on the drive up to the Muskokas.

As for clean water, it has been a preoccupation of Canadians for decades. The acid-rain debate of the 1980s was about preserving our lakes and forests by reducing sulphur-dioxide emissions by 50 per cent. It involved negotiations with seven provinces from Manitoba to Newfoundland, the participation of industry as part of the solution, and engagement with the United States at the highest level. There would have been no acid-rain accord in 1991 without Brian Mulroney's personal rapport with successive U.S. presidents, Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush.

Similarly, on climate change, Ottawa must work with the provinces, the private sector, including the auto and oil industries, and the U.S., with which we share a continent. Emissions don't exactly stop at the border. The U.S. accounts for 25 per cent of the world's emissions and while it isn't a Kyoto signatory, its emissions are up 13 per cent relative to 1990 levels, an increase only about half as bad as ours.

This is why the hypocrisy of Paul Martin's speech to the Montreal climate change conference last December, reminding the U.S. "there is such a thing as a global conscience," triggered a new low in Canada-U.S. relations. By contrast, on his visit to the White House last month, Harper announced he and George W. Bush had agreed that officials should report directly to them on climate change. It was an important statement, scarcely noticed at the time.

Harper might yet prove to the beneficiary of low expectations on this crucial file. And the proof of his intentions will be in the package he presents next month.

But he now appears to get it. Among other things, he gets that the environment is key to middle-class voters in the centre of the political spectrum, where elections are won.

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