It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Yep, down in California things look pretty good. The economy’s booming; it’s number 2 in the US in terms of energy efficiency; greenhouse gas emissions are down 7 percent since 2010. And there are plans to get to 100 % carbon-free electricity by 2045 !
California is the rock star in the North American climate change pantheon. This is no chump change player. California is a world-class act – with an economy way bigger than the UK’s, France, and yes Canada’s.
In the other CA, aka Canada–how are we doing? Well, no, not quite so good. This is where it is the worst of times—definitely when it comes to climate change action.
It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.
Not sure about the wisdom bit—which is hard to find these days in the era of Trump; but there’s plenty of solid good sense in Californian policy-making when it comes to climate change. And more to the point, there is a well-founded understanding of the scientific basis of why the climate is changing, and a clear sense of the destructive impacts that will be incrementally unleashed on the state. The dogs of war are devastating wildfires, drought, heatwaves, desertification, water stress, sea level rise, and ferocious and incessant coastal erosion. This is not a forecast. This is not a mathematical model. This is happening now.
Meanwhile up in Canada, foolishness is pretty much the order of the day. Well not everywhere—but in Canada’s most populous province: Ontario, it has escalated to embarrassing proportions. The new premier Doug Ford has sworn to shut down Ontario’s carbon cap-and-trade program, which is a demonstrably effective component of a strategy to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The province’s environment minister calls cap-and-trade a cash grab. Doug Ford says it’s a slush fund.
The emissions trading program was set up in California in 2014, and first Quebec, and then Ontario, signed up and joined in a few years later. And yes, it has worked.
Quebec’s emissions of greenhouse gases have fallen by 6 % over the last 6 years, while in Ontario emissions have declined by almost the same amount.
It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.
Certainly in California there is a belief that if emissions of greenhouse gases can be forced down to close to zero, and if China and India, and other major industrial economies do likewise, the global warming trend can be slowed and eventually halted. There is still a chance, a good chance, that this is possible.
Further to the north, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government, has ridiculed carbon pricing as an unwarranted tax that imperils poor Canadians and drives low-income households into poverty. Since this is the political party now in power in the province of Ontario, it is frankly incredible that a group of politicians could be so ignorant of the science, and so blind to the mounting evidence that the climate is slowly inching towards catastrophe.
It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.
The season of light? There’s certainly plenty of sunlight in California. The California Energy Commission just updated the state’s building energy efficiency standard–which will soon require solar photovoltaic systems on all new residential buildings; and then Jerry Brown signed off on SB 100 which mandates that the state will be 100% clean energy by 2045—most of this power coming from solar.
On the other side of the coin, Ontario is not exactly in darkness—the lights are still on. But when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and taking action on climate change, premier Doug Ford has essentially pulled the plug.
It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
At this point we’ll part company with Charles Dickens and take a closer look at carbon pricing. California and Canada are pursuing quite different carbon pricing policies. California is forging ahead; Canada’s approach has run aground.
If the Canadian federal government studied California a bit more closely there’s a couple of things it might notice—and learn from.
The first is that California’s strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions didn’t start with the implementation of its cap-and-trade program. It started a decade earlier with direct regulatory action on the sectors that were responsible for most of the emissions: the power sector and transportation. Phasing out coal and enforcing efficiency standards on automobiles—you don’t need a carbon tax to make it work. California’s emissions began to fall in 2007—six years before the cap-and trade program started up. These complementary actions are often disparaged by the economists as ‘command-and-control’; but the evidence from California and the nine north-eastern states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, clearly shows that these are the policies that work.
Next up: energy efficiency standards for buildings. Once again, you don’t need cap-and trade to set strict building codes, construction standards, efficiency benchmarks, and enforce compliance.
So here’s a tip for Justin Trudeau. If you insist on imposing a federal carbon tax, you risk the same fate as Malcolm Turnbull: the Australian prime minister who was driven from office this year over this very issue. Emission trading schemes will always be denigrated as an unwarranted burden on poor hardworking Canadians by populist politicians–and it’s a political strategy that works at the ballot box.
So drop the carbon tax. Instead, consult with the provinces to set a timetable to rapidly phase out coal-fired power plants; set renewable energy portfolio standards; work on combined heat and power policies; and mandate federally-defined building energy efficiency codes. At the same time, allocate lots more federal money to building out public transport systems and electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the three provinces that have already gone clean: Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia.
And stop believing everything the economists tell you.
For more on California’s energy efficiency policies look here.