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Rich provinces trade hot air in emissions debate

From Friday's Globe and Mail

MONCTON — It was, we are told, an informative session with a great deal of dialogue that presented a valuable exchange of ideas.

But what didn't emerge during the premiers' day-long meeting yesterday on climate change was any consensus about what had to be done.

And at the centre of the stalemate was a battle between Alberta and Ontario that left Premier Dalton McGuinty once again isolated among his colleagues.

"There wasn't a miracle," New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham said as the talks adjourned and provincial officials settled in for a long night in search of wording for a communiqué that would paper over differences and win the support of their political masters.

Wish them luck. The reality is that Ontario and Alberta are on two different pages on the issue of climate change. Other provinces can and will play their roles in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions but none of them has quite the stake in it as do Canada's two wealthiest provinces.

Here's the primer: Alberta is resisting the call by Ontario and other jurisdictions to establish a scheme that would limit the carbon dioxide that polluters could emit and to establish a trading system for smog credits. Alberta's Ed Stelmach is adamant that his province could deal with greenhouse gases on its own without joining such a national cap-and-trade system. He doesn't fancy shipping Alberta dollars to, say, Ontario.

Ontario, on the other hand, is steadfast in opposition to the model for reducing carbon emissions from vehicles that California will phase in after 2009. Mr. McGuinty is concerned about the impact the standard would have on the U.S.-based auto industry that provides up to 326,000 direct and indirect jobs in his province.

"That's a lot of jobs and that's a lot of families," he told the other leaders.

You would think the two provinces would sympathize with each other but that's not the way it played out yesterday. And it appears that Mr. Stelmach garnered more support among the leaders than Mr. McGuinty.

All the provinces, excepting Ontario, supported the California tailpipe standard, but Alberta was cut a lot of slack over its resistance to the cap-and-trade system. Newfoundland's Danny Williams offered, unprompted, that "we don't want to, basically, save the world on the back of Alberta," while Quebec's Jean Charest told the meeting that the cap-and-trade regime shouldn't be imposed on any jurisdiction.

At the same time, Mr. McGuinty got a reprise of the rough ride he received last year over changes to the federal equalization scheme.

B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, normally an Ontario ally, scolded Mr. McGuinty behind closed doors for not prodding the Detroit-based auto industry for fighting the California initiative. He said the Big Three have to catch up to European and Japanese auto makers in order to survive.

"It's a much stronger strategy economically than to say 'let's resist them until we're forced to make them,' " he said later.

Asked if the Ontario Premier was isolated, Mr. Campbell replied hesitatingly: "On that issue he is not, well ... 12 of 13 agree we should go to California tailpipe standards." That sounds like a yes.

Mr. McGuinty emerged from this bruising morning meeting with a new approach. He said he would adopt the California standards as part of a package that included a cap-and-trade scheme and $650-million from the federal government to support a greening of the auto industry.

The offer was dead on arrival, however, because Mr. Stelmach was facing little pressure from his colleagues to embrace the cap-and-trade system. "It was a good day today," he said later. "We managed to get our positions across."

But the Ontario Premier's offer will allow him to leave Moncton - and head straight into an election campaign -- saying he had tried his best to save the environment.

He will also, however, have to carry the anchor of defending the Detroit troglodytes who are resisting the tougher fuel-economy standards that are becoming inevitable.

Mr. McGuinty is hoping his own $650-million incentive plan for green vehicles will be the carrot that Detroit can't resist. But he'll have to pull off a delicate balancing act until the Big Three decide to join the parade.

mcampbell@globeandmail.com

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