Disentangling John Baird’s testimony

What Environment Minister John Baird was up to when he testified before the Canadian Senate’s energy, environment and natural resources committee was pretty complicated, so we’ll take it step by step.

Officially, the committee was meeting to consider Bill C-288, a private member’s bill passed by the House of Commons last Feb. 14. It orders the government to come up with a plan to meet Canada’s Kyoto commitments, which include reducing the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions to six per cent below 1990 levels by 2008.

The Conservative government voted against it, but all the opposition parties voted in favour. The bill belongs to Pablo Rodriguez, one of Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s top Quebec lieutenants.

The bill is intensely stupid, and all the more so for being pointless. It’s pointless because although the House of Commons has passed it and the Senate probably will, but the Tories will never take it to the Governor General for royal assent, so it’ll never officially become law. It’s stupid because it orders the government to do something that’s now become effectively impossible, namely meeting an emissions target that might have been feasible if we’d started on it 10 years ago, but really can’t be achieved in the next eight months. It’s a relic of the airy-fairy era of greenhouse-gas regulation, when Jean Chrétien’s and Paul Martin’s governments waved the Kyoto Accord around like a pom-pom, and did basically nothing else.

Rodriguez introduced it May 17, 2006, when Rona Ambrose was still environment minister and before the Tories decided they needed to be seen taking green issues seriously.

Even the Liberals have implicitly acknowledged that meeting our immediate Kyoto commitments is pretty much impossible; their “white paper” on greenhouse gases, released March 16, uses the Kyoto numbers as a target starting in 2008, but imposes only very mild penalties on heavy-industry companies that exceed them, mainly requiring them to pay a little into a fund that they themselves can use to greenify their own operations. By 2012, they’re having to pay a bit more, but the hammer never really comes down.

Besides being the Liberals’ official plan, this is substantially what’s in the revised version of the Tories’ Clean Air Act that the opposition parties rewrote last month. It is completely separate from, and much saner than, Rodriguez’s Bill C-288.

But because Bill C-288 is what was on the table today, Bill C-288 is what Baird got to fight against. And so he did, with this nuclear report on what it would take to implement Kyoto in the next eight months. The report documents the world’s broad failure to take the Kyoto Accord seriously and the impossibility of slashing Canada’s emissions by 260 megatonnes (give or take) of carbon dioxide in the short time available.

It’s the kind of thing right-wing Kyoto skeptics absolutely dream about. They get to talk about a $195-a-tonne carbon tax (say, $1,000 a year applied to the gasoline used by an average driver), tripling the price of natural gas for home heating, the loss of 275,000 jobs due to the price shocks … whatever you like, it’s all devastating, and all in a report written in pretty plain English. The costs would be so dramatic and painful that the government might literally not be able to enforce the laws and regulations it would need to enact.

These are, in a very real sense, the costs of implementing the Kyoto Accord. You can quibble with the details and be skeptical of some of the numbers, but when TD Bank’s chief economist Don Drummond — who’s got solid green credentials — backs them as he does with some reservations, you can’t dismiss them.

One of Drummond’s reservations, however, is that the analysis assumes we pursue Kyoto in the stupidest, harshest, most stubborn way possible.

The National Post‘s Lorne Gunter, who I don’t think would object to being described as a right-wing Kyoto skeptic, praises the tactic:

And now that [Baird] has succeeded in forcing the Liberals to become shriller and shriller on the environment (to distinguish themselves from the Tories), Baird is seeking to show the economic cost of doing what the Liberals suggest. So not only do the Conservatives look green enough for most voters, thanks to Baird. The next step is to make those who want more than the Conservatives are offering on the environment — the Liberals among them — look like extremists, whose promises would be dangerous to voters’ pocketbooks.

The trick here is, as I say, that this is not what the Liberals suggest. It is what they suggested as recently as February, though, which is when they stepped in front of the petard John Baird just hoisted.

He scored a major tactical victory today, one the Liberals might deflect by using their majority in the Senate to throttle Bill C-288 forthwith. They need to turn legislative attention to the revised Clean Air Act, Bill C-30, which a reasonable person might actually support. If they decide to defend Bill C-288, or let Stéphane Dion get all indignant about Baird’s sleight of hand, or in any other way let Baird’s devastating report get a moment’s more attention, they’ll be doing themselves no favours.

More importantly, they’ll hand all the leverage on the climate-change file to a guy who’d clearly rather score debating points than present a conservative plan on climate change that acknowledges that it’s a real and present threat.

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