National Column: Trudeau falls flat on climate-change plan

Thomas Walkom Toronto Star

Justin Trudeau’s plan for the environment is an odd mixture of precision and studied vagueness.

It is precise in most details. The Liberal leader has something to say on a host of things, ranging from electric cars to sockeye salmon.

But on the big question of how to deal with climate change, he is disappointingly vague.

Here, Trudeau retreats into the labyrinth of federal-provincial relations, promising much consultation with the premiers but little explanation of how and when these talks might lead to action.

Clearly, the Liberals have been doing their homework. Trudeau’s plan incorporates many ideas from the mainstream environmental movement.

A Liberal government, Trudeau said Monday, would roll back a host of Conservative spending cuts to national parks and marine science. It would spend $200 million annually to support clean technology in the resource sector and invest $100 million more in industries that create such technology.

It would move to protect sockeye salmon on British Columbia’s Fraser River and reach a deal with Ontario that would allow Toronto’s stalled Rouge National Park to go ahead.

It would even set up battery recharging stations for electric cars in federal parking lots.

More important, it would “move toward a system” that requires environmental assessment panels to look at the upstream effects of projects on greenhouse gas emissions.

In plain English, this means that federal panels assessing pipelines would have to take into account the climate-change effects of the oil, bitumen or natural gas being transported.

Under Trudeau’s plan, a Liberal government would also revisit the Conservative government’s decision to gut laws that protect fish habitat in order to “restore lost protections and incorporate more modern safeguards.”

It would expand the use of so-called green bonds, a scheme whereby governments or their agencies borrow money to finance projects deemed environmentally worthwhile.

Other promises are aimed at specific voting groups. Many British Columbians will be pleased at Trudeau’s vow to formalize a ban on tanker traffic along the province’s northern coast.

And the pledge to solve the political logjam holding up Rouge National Park is probably not unrelated to Liberal political aspirations in Toronto’s Scarborough.

Still, detail is welcome in any political platform. We now know, for instance, that Trudeau would extend the accelerated capital cost allowance tax break to those who buy charging stations for electric cars. But on the big issue of climate change, Trudeau retreats into process. He would take the premiers with him to the Paris climate-change summit in December. By April, he would hold a first ministers’ conference to forge a consensus on emissions-reduction targets. He would commit “targeted federal funding” to help provinces reduce their emissions.

Trudeau explains, with some justice, that in a federal state, co-operation between national and provincial governments is useful. He notes that some provinces, notably British Columbia, are already trying to deal with carbon emissions. He has compared his climate-change strategy to medicare, a national public health insurance scheme run by the provinces.

But he forgets how difficult and time-consuming it is to get provincial agreement on anything. Constitutional talks dragged on for decades. So have talks aimed at eliminating interprovincial trade barriers.

He also forgets that national medicare was not the result of federal-provincial collaboration. It was a unilateral federal action that, initially, was supported by only Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

If, as Trudeau seems to be saying, climate change is a looming catastrophe, then time is of the essence. By all means the prime minister should talk to premiers.

But he should also be prepared to act, alone if necessary, in the national interest.

We know from this latest addition to the Liberal platform that Trudeau would restore $1.5 million in federal funding to Northwestern Ontario’s scientifically valuable Experimental Lakes Area. Fine.

But what would he do to significantly reduce carbon emissions? If this document is anything to go by, he would host a meeting.

Thomas Walkom’s column appears Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright: 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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