What to look for in the Tories’ climate-change announcement

John Baird headshotThe release of the full Conservative environment plan is taking on the look of something thrown together in a hurry, despite the months of anticipation. As of this afternoon, Environment Canada knows that’s it’s having a lock-up for reporters in downtown Toronto on Thursday (presumably to play more directly to the business press, rather than the horse-race-with-a-side-of-policy specialists of the Ottawa press corps), but isn’t yet in a position to say where it might be. Environment Minister John Baird publishes the text of a speech with this passage:

When fully mature, by 2020, total costs will be in the range of $XX per Canadian in today’s dollars. This could include price increases for consumer products like vehicles, natural gas, electricity, household appliances and even groceries. We need to be prepared for this extra responsibility if we are going to get the job done.

“$XX,” eh?

It’s usual, when ministers’ speeches are released, to indicate what occasion the speech was written for — Rona Ambrose’s last couple as environment minister were “Speech for the Honourable Rona Ambrose, Minister of the Environment on Renewable Fuels. Innovation Place, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on December 20, 2006″ and “Address delivered by the Honourable Rona Ambrose, Minister of the Environment of Canada to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Nairobi, Kenya on November 15, 2006.”

Baird’s latest was merely “Remarks.” His department issued no notice that the minister would be giving a major speech. Baird was to join Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn for an announcement on banning incandescent lightbulbs, but that was at 9:30 a.m. and Baird’s “remarks” begin “Good afternoon.” They also refer to the Lunn announcement as having happened “yesterday.”

Perhaps he took his notes to a cocktail party.

Anyway, the details are due Thursday at 4 p.m. Here’s what I’ll be looking for.

Projections of Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions in 2020. Andrew Coyne has closely parsed the text of Baird’s remarks, which you have to, and found an apple and an orange sitting next to each other in a way that invites comparison.

Once greenhouse gases have stopped rising, we will begin to reduce them, so that by 2020, Canada will have cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 150 million tonnes. This is 20% of our total emissions today.

The question is, 150 million tonnes compared to what? Compared to our emissions in 2007? Compared to their expected peak in three to five years? Compared to where we project we’d be in 2020 if we did nothing?

Our annual emissions right now are about 756 million tonnes. Our Kyoto target is about 563 million tonnes. How many actual tonnes of carbon dioxide do the Conservatives expect their plan will see Canada emitting in 2020?

The price of carbon offsets. If these are set too cheaply, it’ll make more sense to buy offsets — investments in carbon-fixing activities like mass tree-planting — than to reduce emissions. These aren’t necessarily bad, but they’re unproven and possibly ineffective if, say, the trees don’t take or get eaten by pine beetles. If a company can spend $1 on an iffy offset and get credit as though it had cut a megatonne of CO2, that’s a sign of an ineffective plan.

The price of investing in a technology fund. This is hazardous for the same reason as offsets can be. The Liberals propose a rising scale of payments into a technology fund for excessive CO2 emitters that starts at $20 per excess tonne as of 2008. How does the Tory plan compare?

Anything resembling a carbon tax. Offsets and technology funds are for major emitters — the smelters and oilsands upgraders and provincial coal-fired generating plants. They’re a big part of the problem, but so are individuals. Baird’s remarks mention making household appliances more efficient, but is there anything else that hits the consumer where he or she lives, encouraging us to make personal lifestyle changes for the better?

What’s this thing supposed to cost? Is this plan designed to be approved and chart a real course for the future, or is it designed to be shot down by an angry public, neutralizing the green scare as an election issue without requiring anything of the government? Nasty surprises other than cost could serve this function, though the unveiling of a shockingly high number would explain the mysterious “$XX.”

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