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Editorial: Wheels within wheels

Canada’s current debate over carbon pricing, and Manitoba’s response to the federal requirements, highlight the complexities of making public policy.

The federal government wants Canadian businesses, households and individuals to emit less carbon. That’s going to mean burning fewer fuels, using what we do use more efficiently and many other changes large and small throughout our society.

Some contest whether this is really necessary, including those who accept climate change is real, yet don’t believe it’s caused by human activity. Others say we should be taking this path regardless, because in the end we’ll all be better off for it. A more efficient society will be more resilient and less susceptible to things like oil price shocks.

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To the surprise of many who view conservatism and conservation as two mutually exclusive things, the Pallister government appears to have invested considerable effort into understanding the issue and formulating a response. It’s also shown considerable leadership in tackling a thorny question that’s sure to exhaust at least some political goodwill amongst its voting base.

One of the thorniest sticking points appears to be just how carbon production will be reduced and from what point the measurement and tracking will begin. To understand this, we need to understand how governments incentivize citizens to take desired action.

In simplified form, they pick a behaviour they want to modify or encourage, start from a baseline and begin piling on penalties and incentives to punish and reward. In some ways it makes a lot of sense, as it will surely result in a modification of the desired behaviour.

However, some critics point out that it’s a bit of a blunt instrument approach which assumes a black and white world, where nothing is already being done to try to prevent the problem. Too often it can punish those who are already doing the right thing.

That’s really in many ways one of the central themes of the Pallister government’s climate proposal. It wants Manitoba’s already considerable investments in things like hydroelectric generation taken into account, saying that the raw carbon emission numbers already tell the tale of our smaller footprint.

Pallister has a point. Alberta and Saskatchewan, which are the provinces that most closely resemble us, have a far higher carbon footprint per capita. According to the Conference Board of Canada, in 2013 Saskatchewan emitted 67.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, and Alberta 66.7. Compared to that, Manitoba’s annual per capita emissions, at 16.9 tonnes per capita, were positively miserly.

But those raw numbers don’t tell the whole tale. One thing that’s frequently conveniently left out of the discussion is that Alberta and Saskatchewan are outliers. In fact the Conference Board went so far in its analysis to note that our Prairie peers “… are in a league of their own. With per capita emissions of over 65 tonnes CO2e, these provinces are the lowest ranked across all jurisdictions and score ‘D-’ grades.”

Partly the problem for these provinces is they’re still burning coal and other fossil fuels to generate electricity. If Manitoba hadn’t invested in hydroelectricity, we’d be just as coal dependent.

The other part of the problem is the provincial economies are largely dependent on energy, mining and agriculture — all energy-intensive businesses that have the commensurate high greenhouse gas emissions, the conference board states.

Here Manitoba shares some of these realities. As a result, when you look at the whole picture, our provincial emissions aren’t quite as rosy as many would like to suggest. The same report pegged our 2013 emissions at 16.9 tonnes per capita, which earned us just a ‘C’ grade, about the middle of the pack.

If we want to improve that showing, changes will need to come, and here’s where it gets really complex, and with some unintended consequences.

For example, many contend agriculture should get credit for its changes to management practices such as adopting lower tillage, which sequesters carbon. That might be nice, but is it fair or necessary?

After all, the early adopters of the system might have been chasing its soil conservation benefits. But most farmers adopted it because it made more economic sense. It makes sense to use an ALUS-like program, as the province is suggesting it may, to reward producers for taking uneconomic actions, but less sense to reward prudent financial decisions.

One thing that is certain is this debate is far from over. While the Pallister government has made the concession of taking action on this file, the federal government has already stated it’s not enough.

They can quibble over the numbers, but the Pallister approach merits a thorough airing before being rejected out of hand.

About the author

Editor

Gord Gilmour

Gord Gilmour is Editor of the Manitoba Co-operator.

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