By Bob Oliver, Chief Executive Officer at Pollution Probe
Heresy is defined as any provocative belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs. But that doesn’t mean that heresies, or the heretics that speak them, are wrong. Famously, Galileo was imprisoned for declaring the Earth orbited the sun – not the other way around.
This past Thanksgiving weekend, listeners to CBC Radio One’s The House were witness to a form of environmental heresy. When asked to declare the Federal Liberal Party’s targets for reductions in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the timelines by which they would be achieved, Justin Trudeau refused.
He then challenged the established belief in the importance of such measures, and dismissed the custom of one-upmanship that defines the politics of climate change. “What we need is not ambitious political targets,” he explained. “What we need is an ambitious plan to reduce our emissions in this country.”
He’s right, heretical though it might seem. For nearly two decades, we’ve engaged in sanctimonious debate about which government’s targets are most righteous. Targets have become a form of religious proxy for practical action – a moral tale we tell ourselves. But objectively speaking, it doesn’t really matter whether Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions go up or down. What matters is that, globally, concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere go down. And how Canada should contribute to that global imperative is the matter in question.
Developing and deploying practical solutions that can reduce emissions right across North America, Europe and Asia should be at the heart of Canada’s climate change plan. Too often we focus only on how to eliminate our own emissions, by looking at our local opportunities to expand renewable power production and increase the efficiency with which we use energy. Indeed, we should do these things. After all, Canada’s per-capita emissions are among the highest in the world, so we certainly have room to improve. But the world’s annual emissions total tops 45 million kilotonnes, of which Canada’s share is probably about 2 per cent, depending on whose numbers you follow. So, if we are serious about stopping climate change, it’s not enough for Canada to reduce its own emissions – we also have to enable and accelerate reductions worldwide.
Fortunately, exporting innovation to the world is something that Canada has proven that it can do well. Our prosperity has depended on developing the capacity to export goods and services to our trading partners, and with them engage in collaborative initiatives. Canadarm technology used in the U.S. Space Shuttle Program and on the International Space Station serves as a poignant example of how Canadian innovation both relies on and enables international achievements. A more down-to-earth example is Canada’s leadership in hydrogen fuel cell technology, which is being applied in Europe to build emissions-free passenger rail systems (the type of clean technology and green infrastructure in which Trudeau says he’ll invest some $20B).
This type of capacity, in turn, rests squarely on the diplomatic capacities that Canada has developed. Internationally negotiated trade agreements, such as the recently proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, enable Canada to do business in wider markets. And this allows Canada to create value and generate wealth by providing solutions to the climate change challenges of other, larger-emitting nations.
Converse to Canada’s outbound flow of goods and services is our inbound flow of people – another Canadian strength. Immigration allows new approaches and perspectives to enrich Canada’s entrepreneurial and innovative potential, at a time when fresh thinking is as important as ever.
The point is that Canada needs a climate change plan that is outward-looking, playing to our innovation and export opportunities, our diplomatic capacities and our immigration policies as strategic strengths. Whereas, by prioritizing the setting of domestic greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets and timelines, we encourage an inward-looking focus that can blind us to more valuable opportunities for Canada to make a difference on the global stage.
So, we can either view Trudeau’s refusal to specify emissions targets as environmental heresy, or we can take it as an enlightened challenge to solve the much bigger problem of global climate change.
About Pollution Probe
Established in 1969, Pollution Probe is a national, non-profit organization that exists to improve the health and well-being of Canadians by advancing policy that achieves positive, tangible environmental change. Pollution Probe has a proven track record of working in partnership with industry and government to develop practical solutions to environmental challenges.