Three recent reports begin to illustrate the difficulties that Canada will have in addressing the climate change issue in coming months. The first encourages Canada to take a comprehensive approach to the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. The other two highlight divergent regional views that will make negotiating a comprehensive approach extremely difficult. The climate change debate in Canada is therefore expected to intensify this year. Hopefully, the country will find a solution that works across the confederation, and that could serve as a model abroad.

Call for a comprehensive approach

The first report, entitled Getting the Balance Right: The Oil Sands, Exporting and Sustainability, was prepared by the Conference Board of Canada. As stated in the accompanying press release, one of the report's conclusions is that "Alberta's oil sands should not be singled out as the source of Canada's poor record on greenhouse gas emissions." Instead, the report calls for improved regulation of "every link in the energy value chain."

The environmental community did not object to the notion of a comprehensive approach to GHG regulation. As reported by the Canadian Press, Simon Dyer, oilsands program director for the environmental think-tank Pembina Institute, agreed that "We need meaningful greenhouse gas reduction policies that apply to all polluters" provided that there is "no special deal for the oilsands." As reported last fall, the federal government views the oil sands as a trade exposed" industry that may warrant special treatment under cap-and-trade, although Ottawa has not yet finalized its policy.

Interestingly, having concluded that the oil sands should not be singled out, the report recommended that "emissions from vehicles merit priority treatment." The recommendation was based on the fact that the transportation sector accounts for 27% of Canadian GHG emissions while the oil sands accounts for only 5%. However, the report acknowledges that oil sands production is expected to double in the next decade, meaning that even if emissions intensity can be decreased, the oil sands contribution to national emissions will continue to grow.

Simmering below the surface of the report is a growing debate between the provinces about climate change, generally, and the oil sands, specifically (witness the back and forth between Quebec City and Ottawa this week). The Conference Board report acknowledges that Alberta in particular will "capture a significant share of direct benefits of oil sands development." Other provinces want to guard against oil sands producers socializing the environmental costs of the projects across the entire country, which could occur in part if Alberta does not bear a proportionate burden for reducing Canada's emissions (environmental effects aside, provinces whose economies depend on a cheap Canadian dollar to drive exports are no doubt concerned about expanding the country's sensitivity to the global price of oil, as the price of oil and the strength of the Canadian dollar tend to be positively correlated).

The debate is likely to get even more heated in the coming year.

Divergent views across the country

The debate will intensify in part because Canadians do not agree about the reality of climate change or the risk it poses, as illustrated in two recent polls.

The first poll was conducted by Angus Reid last December. As reported in the Calgary Herald, the poll found that 31% of Albertans believe that global warming is a theory that has not yet been proven while only 41% of them believe that climate change is a fact and that it is mostly caused by emissions from vehicles and industrial facilities.

These views stand in sharp contrast to those held across the country. Nationally, only 17% believe climate change to be a theory, while 56% accept that it is caused by emissions from human activities. The keepers of the oil sands therefore do share the same conviction as their neighbours about the existence of the problem.

Even those Albertans who perceive a problem do not necessarily agree about its severity. The other recent poll was a Canadian Defence & Foreign Affairs Institute survey conducted by the Innovative Research Group (the "CDFAI Poll"). The CDFAI poll concluded that a majority of Canadians view climate change as a critical threat to the vital interests of the country in the next 10 years, making climate change the most important threat in the views of Canadians (other threats in the Top 5 were international terrorism, increasing number of immigrants and refugees, globalization, and potential epidemics). Again, the CDFAI Poll found that the perception of climate change as a threat varied sharply across the country. For example, a full 62% of Quebecers ranked climate change as a critical threat. In contrast, only 28% of Albertans did so.

As Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University, put it, these diverging views bode "very poorly and it's because the issue of climate change cuts into the common narrative of Alberta in the federal system." He explained "When you hear Albertans getting upset about the response of particularly (Quebec Premier) Jean Charest, it gets thrown into equalization payments, it gets into Quebec special status and Confederation. It gets framed as an issue of consumers versus producers, that instead of putting the burden on consumers - which the majority live in Ontario and Quebec - they are putting the onus on carbon producers, which singles out Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland."

Challenge and opportunity

Responding to climate change therefore simultaneously requires a national consensus and aggravates issues that tug at Canada's constitutional seams. We therefore expect to see intense and at times acrimonious debate about the issue across country this year. However, we remain optimistic that Canada can arrive at a workable solution, particularly given that the confederation has survived more than one constitutional/federalist skirmish in the past.

In many ways, Canada's situation is representative of the global issues that make climate change such a formidable problem. Disparities in historical emissions, resource wealth, consumption, production, and exposure to the effects of climate change were all barriers in the Copenhagen process. Should Canada be able to develop an approach to climate change that reconcile the different interests of its provinces, it may be able to play a constructive role in addressing the problem globally.