Building a consensus on climate change? Not so easy, after all.

When the premiers balked at a pan-Canadian tax on carbon, the Prime Minister was left to speak vaguely. Is a cohesive national plan even possible?
Ziya Tong, co-host of Daily Planet interviews PM Justin Trudeau at the Global 2016 conference in Vancouver, B.C.. (Photograph by Jimmy Jeong)
Ziya Tong, co-host of Daily Planet interviews PM Justin Trudeau at the Global 2016 conference in Vancouver, B.C.. (Photograph by Jimmy Jeong)

For Justin Trudeau, Globe 2016 didn’t seem to have the makings of a tough outing. As the Prime Minister stepped onto a stage at the Vancouver Convention Centre one morning last week to address the opening session of the environmentally themed business conference, some 1,600 delegates rose to applaud him. Trudeau breezed confidently through his speech, that way he does, and then sat down in a comfy chair across from TV personality Ziya Tong, co-host of the Discovery Channel’s science show Daily Planet, for an on-stage interview.

Tong is not exactly a hardball political journalist. Along with hosting her upbeat show of science news and features, she sits on the board of WWF-Canada, the mainstream environmental organization with the panda logo, whose president and CEO, from 2008 to 2012, happened to be Gerald Butts, better known these days as Trudeau’s principal secretary and alter ego. A few years back, Tong invited Butts to be an early Daily Planet guest. This time, the Prime Minister’s Office recruited her for the interview gig. At the back of the room, the national media was not on high alert as their chat began. Eyes may have rolled.

But then Tong began winding up for her first pitch. She spoke of the urgent need to combat global warming, and signalled her science-wonk credentials by mentioning the related crisis of ocean acidification. Then she took aim at one of the toughest files on Trudeau’s desk: TransCanada’s proposed Energy East pipeline, which would transport 1.1 million barrels of Alberta crude a day 4,600 km to refineries in Saint John, N.B. “How is Energy East even on the table?” Tong asked in an exasperated, almost accusatory tone, prompting approving whoops from the deeper green element in the crowd.

The reporters at the back sat up, too, as Trudeau carefully answered. “We all know that we need to get beyond fossil fuels,” he said. “We are simply not there yet. And in the meantime, in the transition, not only do we need jobs and growth in the economy, we need to be figuring out how to extract and develop our natural resources, including fossil fuels, in smarter, cleaner, more responsible ways.” It was a telling exchange. Trudeau might have come to eco-conscious Vancouver to burnish his image on climate change, but he would have to strike an awkward balance here, at nearly every turn, between selling Canadian oil (now) and saving the planet (later). How could one imperative lead to the other? Transition was his word of the week.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leads Canada's premiers to a news conference during the First Ministers Meeting in Vancouver, B.C., Thursday, March. 3, 2016. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leads Canada’s premiers to a news conference during the First Ministers Meeting in Vancouver, B.C., Thursday, March. 3, 2016. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

The convention centre occupies two buildings on the breathtaking Vancouver waterfront, overlooking Burrard Inlet. Off to the left is the tall timber of Stanley Park. Farther away to the right, out of sight but not out of mind, is the port where the Trans Mountain Pipeline ends. Kinder Morgan controversially proposes to spend $5.4 billion expanding it, aiming to triple the amount of diluted Alberta oil sands bitumen pumped onto the tankers that ply the inlet. So Trudeau had come to a place where the on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other arguments that tend to dominate debate about the environment and economy feel palpably real.

As Globe 2016 carried on in the convention centre’s east building, Trudeau moved next door to the west building, where he met behind closed doors, first with Indigenous leaders, and then provincial premiers. His confab with the premiers had been billed as a big moment. Late last year, at the conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris, dubbed COP21, Trudeau promised, as he had through his winning fall election campaign, to convene a first ministers’ meeting within 90 days to hammer out a Canadian climate change strategy. No realist expected a detailed plan with precise, short-term emission-reduction targets, but federal Liberal officials signalled that they wanted some sort of agreement from all provinces on the need to put a price on carbon.

Related: How to carve up Canada’s climate-change burden

If there is a place in Canada to talk about pricing carbon dioxide emissions—generally accepted by experts as the surest way to discourage the burning of fossil fuels—British Columbia is it. Back in 2007, then-B.C. premier Gordon Campbell took the almost inconceivable political gamble of imposing a $10-per-tonne tax on CO2, and set in motion a series of annual hikes that would raise the levy to $30 a tonne by 2012. His successor, Premier Christy Clark, hasn’t increased it since then, but is now contemplating an expert panel’s report urging her to do just that.

Skeptics doubt Clark will risk taking their advice, in the face of the virulent anti-tax streak in B.C. popular opinion. (Not unlike just about everywhere else.) In an interview, though, she didn’t rule out raising the carbon tax, noting the panel’s “wise” call for offsetting cuts to other taxes. Environmental taxes can only succeed, Clark says, if voters can be convinced they are revenue-neutral. “You can’t take more money out of people’s pockets,” she says. “I don’t think you can build a consensus in this country about environmental policy if you’re going to make people poor.”

Even without any increase, she added, B.C.’s carbon tax is already much higher per tonne than the more complicated carbon-pricing policies of Quebec, Ontario and Alberta. Indeed, the federal government went into Vancouver reportedly seeking agreement on a $15-per-tonne minimum carbon price across Canada, half B.C.’s status quo. Not only was that rejected by the premiers, they wouldn’t even agree to a declaration that explicitly approved of a future pan-Canadian carbon price at any level.

After a few hours of tough bargaining, Trudeau was left having to make the best of an intentionally imprecise communiqué. The so-called Vancouver Declaration promised six months of study into “carbon pricing mechanisms adapted to each province’s and territory’s specific circumstances.” Did that mean every province would one day have to put a price on carbon? Confused reporters asked Trudeau that key question from various angles at a closing news conference. “Putting a price on carbon,” he said in a typical response, “is an important part of the suite of tools we have to bring forward to create the low-carbon economy we need.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre, is seen during a meeting of the First Ministers, First Nations, Inuit, and Metis Leaders in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, March. 2, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre, is seen during a meeting of the First Ministers, First Nations, Inuit, and Metis Leaders in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, March. 2, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Talk of a “suite of tools” and “mechanisms” left serious doubt about what carbon pricing was taken to mean at the meeting. Experts typically apply the term to broad measures, like B.C.’s carbon tax, or cap-and-trade schemes like Quebec’s, which strictly limit a companies’ emissions, but allow those able to operate more efficiently to sell carbon emission permits they don’t use. However, some premiers proposed a more elastic definition. Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall said a plant in his province that captures carbon dioxide from a coal-fired power station—and sells it to oil companies, who pump it into the ground to get more crude—is a kind of carbon pricing. Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil argued his province’s investment in hydro has pushed up electricity prices in what amounts to a price on carbon.

Mark Jaccard laughs a lot when he’s asked about the various ways politicians try to finesse carbon pricing. Jaccard is professor of sustainable energy at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University, and has ranked among Canada’s most influential experts on the intersection between energy economics and environmental policy for decades. An improbably youthful 60, he’s also a walking ad for the West Coast lifestyle. He mentions in an interview that he recently had to pass on a chance to meet with James Carr, Trudeau’s natural resources minister and point man on pipeline issues, because he couldn’t bring himself to give up a few days of alpine ski touring with his grown children in B.C.’s Garibaldi Provincial Park.

Jaccard did manage to make it to a reception before the first ministers’ meeting, where he heard Trudeau offer reassurance, as he often does, that Canadians don’t really have to make hard choices between economic growth and effective climate change policy. (“The choice between pipelines and wind turbines,” Trudeau told Globe 2016 delegates, “is a false one.”) “Well, that’s not true,” Jaccard says, with a laugh, for some reason. “You can get rich destroying the planet. So my work has always been to build models that show what it’s going to cost to reduce our emissions. There are costs.” He says economic growth takes a hit, for example, when you phase out cheap coal-fired power plants—as Ontario already has and Alberta plans to—in favour of some more expensive alternative.

Related: How Ottawa and the provinces can work together on climate change

In Paris, Trudeau reaffirmed the commitment Stephen Harper’s Conservatives made to cut Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. What would it take to accomplish that? Jaccard’s research indicates that a national carbon price starting at $30 per tonne next year, and then rising by $10 every year until it hit $160 by 2030—enough to boost gasoline prices by about 40 cents a litre—would make fossil fuels expensive enough to do the trick.

Still, he doesn’t recommend that Trudeau, or any other politician, try to do the job with a carbon tax alone. Jaccard doesn’t think any politician who tried would survive, even though he was a key adviser behind Campbell’s B.C.’s carbon tax. If it could be done in a major province less than a decade ago, why not again now, maybe even nationally? “That was Gordon Campbell,” Jaccard says, guffawing. “He was a policy wonk and a risk-taker.”

Rather than ask why Campbell’s environmental policies couldn’t be replicated, Jaccard says the question is how they ever happened in the first place. “He was an anomaly,” he says. The record bears that out. Campbell followed up his carbon tax with another gamble, this time imposing a provincial value-added tax, harmonized with the federal GST. That was also popular with academic policy experts, but prompted such a firestorm of opposition that he had to resign in 2010. (The following year, then-prime minister Harper named him Canada’s high commissioner to Britain.)

Instead of following in Campbell’s daredevil path, Jaccard urges Trudeau not to rely on a carbon tax alone. A package of serious regulatory measures, like mandating more zero-emission electric cars and trucks, would have a better chance of succeeding politically. No matter what the policy mix, though, Jaccard warns that making good on that 2030 emissions-reduction pledge will be extraordinarily difficult. “It’s a multi-decade effort, if you work really hard now, if you get everything in place in the next six months,” he says.

Trudeau, however, wasn’t talking in Vancouver about an all-out effort that starts almost immediately. “To get there, we need to make smart, strategic investments in clean growth and new infrastructure,” he said in his Globe 2016 speech. “But we also must continue to generate wealth from our abundant natural resources to fund this transition to this low-carbon economy.”

Jaccard can only shake his head and chuckle. “What we’re beginning to hear from the federal government now—‘We’re going to fund green infrastructure and innovation’—those are faking-it policies. You’ve got to either regulate or price.” Asked specifically about Trudeau’s vision of a “transitional period”—an era when new pipelines would be built and oil sands production encouraged, apparently all to pay for the advent of the post-carbon economy—Jaccard forgets to laugh. “It’s bunk, total bunk,” he says, “and please quote me.”

But here’s the part that makes this something other than a tale of academics and activists not buying political rhetoric. Jaccard isn’t writing off the new Liberal government. “I actually think Trudeau and his cabinet and his main people really want to do something,” he says. He’s far from alone. Ziya Tong prides herself in being, as she puts it, “a radical in a TV host’s body,” but she doesn’t take the opening Trudeau gave her, with his answer about the need to sell natural resources, to slam him. Quite the contrary. “I think he’s lovely as a human being, I really do,” she says. As for her friend Gerald Butts and his crew, she muses, “I think they are a very strategic bunch, although I can’t infer what their strategy is.”

Few could. Not from Trudeau’s agreement with the premiers. Their only concrete move was to set up four “working groups,” each given six months to study ways to tackle climate change. The fun working group will look at “clean technology, innovation, and jobs.” The less fun group will study “carbon pricing mechanisms adapted to each province’s and territory’s specific circumstances.” Two more will look at “specific mitigation opportunities” and “adaption and climate resilience.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre, attends a meeting of the First Ministers, First Nations, Inuit, and Metis Leaders in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, March. 2, 2016. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, centre, attends a meeting of the First Ministers, First Nations, Inuit, and Metis Leaders in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, March. 2, 2016. (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

Around Globe 2016, the talk is all about innovation, clean tech and jobs. The heart of the conference is its “innovation expo” area, a big hall where enviro-entrepreneurs staff dozens of booths showcasing the money-making potential of a greener future. Corporate lions and start-up lambs lie down together here, like the row where engineering giant SNC-Lavalin pitches its Candu nuclear reactors (“Part of a low-carbon future”) right next to Boreal Wildcraft’s display of tea blends, featuring forest herbs gathered by First Nations in the Canadian hinterland (loose-leaf only, as the Winnipeg firm’s owner Bob Krul stresses, since “tea bags separate the users from the pickers”).

Listen to enough innovation expo pitches, and the skepticism hanging in the air around the first ministers’ meeting starts to seem defeatist. Everybody here has a solution—from non-CO2-emitting nukes to forest-harvested hot beverages. Maybe it all adds up to an answer. Christy Clark, for one, is counting on it. “Even if we doubled [B.C.’s carbon tax] we still wouldn’t meet our goals because we have to have technological innovation,” she says.

Asked for an example, Clark gushes about a pilot plant in Squamish, B.C., 50 km north of Vancouver, run by Calgary-based Carbon Engineering, which sucks carbon out of the atmosphere and turns it into fuel. It’s far from commercially viable, but designed to showcase how a potentially revolutionary technology might be scaled up. Among the project’s key investors: Bill Gates, whose recent headline-making pronouncement that what’s needed to prevent catastrophic global warming is nothing short of “an energy miracle” can be heard quoted in the Globe 2016 corridors.

Related: Christy Clark joins John Geddes on our politics podcast to discuss climate

Nobody is asking Trudeau for miracles, or not quite. But he is under pressure to deliver some of his political magic at regular intervals. His high-profile meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama this week in Washington will feature the announcement of a continental climate change strategy. His government’s first budget, slated to be tabled on March 22, is expected to earmark hundreds of millions for green infrastructure and clean technology.

But the real test will come six months from now, when the working group on carbon pricing reports back. Trudeau promised an ambitious climate change plan, including a price on carbon, in his election platform, and again in Paris, where he boasted that “Canada is back.” In Vancouver, though, his talk of mechanisms and transitions fell short of ushering in a recognizably new era.

Admirers like Tong must wait for that hidden strategy to crystallize. Experts like Jaccard are left clinging to hope and crediting good intentions. What distinguishes Trudeau from most politicians on climate change, and for that matter on a range of other files, is that so many wish so fervently for him to succeed. That deep well of hope could be what affords him the political room to ultimately tackle the hardest policy challenges, or merely what renders the disappointment that much worse if, in the end, he opts to avoid them.