So, what did that all mean for a Canada-U.S. climate change strategy?

The Obama visit left us with a lot of new questions on the file

This afternoon’s Harper-Obama press conference left us with more questions than answers. In four years, will we share a carbon market? Will Canada retain its intensity targets while the U.S. commits to absolute reductions in greenhouse gases? Will we have cap and trade? It’s all still anybody’s guess. What we do know is, we’re likely going to get a new electric grid. Who saw that coming?

The presser, in which Harper pleaded ignorance on the differences between absolute and intensity targets—”these are just two different ways of measuring the same thing,” he said—left an awful lot of room for criticism. “I think it was a pretty embarrassing day for Canada with respect to climate change policy,” says Marlo Raynolds, executive director of the Pembina Institute environmental group, who saw Obama’s reference to Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s interest in the issue as a rebuke to Canada. “Mexico,” says Raynolds, “a country with one-fifth of the GDP per capita than Canada.”

Yet there were some hints in the press conference, little clues to breaking the code. When a Quebec journalist posed a question to Obama about “tar sands,” he replied using the language of “oil sands,” which is not without political significance. In terms of priorities, Harper and Obama placed climate change high, second only to the problem of the economy. The climate-change talk centred on technology and scientific research rather than on regulations, although Obama did mention that, when it comes to carbon capture and storage, “right now the technologies are at least not cost-effective.”

As for the Alberta oil sands, Obama reiterated the position he took earlier this week while speaking with the CBC—the U.S. has its own problems. “Here in Canada, you have the issue of the oil sands,” he said. “In the United States we have issues around coal.”

As for the substance of the joint announcement, Harper started first, laying out the way forward in broad strokes; Obama filled in little details. “We are establishing a U.S.-Canada clean energy dialogue which commits senior officials from both countries to collaborate on the development of clean energy science and technology that will reduce greenhouse gases and combat climate change,” Harper said. Clunky, maybe, but more than we knew this morning. “It was interesting,” notes Canada West Foundation President and CEO Roger Gibbins, “that they talked about a clean energy ‘dialogue.’ Usually people talk about a framework, an understanding, an agreement, something that has some structure around it. Which I think indicates just how early on in the process this discussion is.”

Silly question: What exactly is a “dialogue,” anyway. “That means that they’ve basically charged the senior officials, cabinet-level and sub-cabinet-level, to work together to bring forward some plans, some ideas,” says Carleton University’s Michael Hart, an advisor to the Canadian federal government during the negotiations for Canada-U.S. free trade and NAFTA.

Meaning this is about delaying the inevitable? Not necessarily, says Hart. Getting more specific now, he says, would be “premature. They don’t have a
climate plan right now, the Obama administration. What they have is a climate attitude.”

Later, Obama chimed in, saying in particular that the dialogue would “support the development of an electric grid that can help deliver the clean and renewable energy of the future to homes and business both in Canada and the United States.” The idea forwarded here appears to be a “smart power grid,” an electrical grid capable of handling the intermittent flow of electricity typical of renewable energy sources like wind power. But that may not be much of an announcement, as it turns out. “There’s no magic to that, you simply have to build more grid,” says University of Calgary environmental economist David Keith.

Obama noted during the presser that he favours a cap-and-trade system, while other countries have debated a carbon tax (could he have meant Canada??). Keith, who bristles at the media’s fascination with the environmental threats posed by the oil sands, to the exclusion of much dirtier coal-fired power plants, thinks Obama’s cap and trade system will win. “The reason is that the Obama administration wants to move relatively quickly,” says Keith, who notes its a regulatory framework the U.S. pioneered and is most comfortable with (Keith himself, like many experts in environmental policy, favours a carbon tax).

But it’s not very likely any of this will happen soon, says Hart, whatever the priorities as they were laid out today. “You cannot do some of the
things that some people think should be done on climate change without a more robust economy,” he says. “No matter how many ways they tried to spin it, imposing either a cap and trade or a carbon tax is not going to do the economy any good.”

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