The recent first ministers meeting left no doubt that the ongoing political efforts to come up with a coherent climate change policy is a complex and confusing task.
After several days of conversation in Vancouver, Canada’s leaders basically agreed to disagree on the best way forward around carbon pricing, at least until more study has been done.
It’s likely not the outcome the federal government wanted.
Since taking office, prime minister Justin Trudeau has made it clear that environmental issues and climate change concerns will be top priorities for his administration. He even renamed the environment ministry to include climate change in its title.
Meanwhile, every single mandate letter sent from Trudeau to his ministers include at least a few lines about the environment.
For example, agriculture minister Lawrence MacAulay was tasked with “work(ing) with provinces, territories and other willing partners to help the sector adjust to climate change and better address water and soil conservation and development issues.”
However, moving forward on the file appears to be easier said than done.
In the end, Canada’s provincial and territorial leaders agreed in Vancouver to continue discussing various carbon pricing options via a new working group.
That agreement is unlikely to please those who want immediate action on the climate change file. After all, the decision to set up a working group has in the past been interpreted as a way of saying, “see, we accomplished something” in gridlock type situations.
Still, any willingness to keep talking should not be dismissed out of hand, particularly on an issue as complex as climate change and carbon pricing.
The division — and the wide range in strategies being put forward — on the climate change file is hard to ignore. So, too, are their effects on Canadian agriculture.
Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall has unequivocally opposed a national carbon tax.
British Columbia already has a carbon tax, although exemptions have since been made for the province’s agriculture industry after the greenhouse industry was hard hit by the changes.
Alberta plans to bring in a carbon tax of its own by 2017, although it has already said the tax will not apply to purple gas.
The province also has a carbon offset program, where farmers who engage in environmentally friendly practices such as no-till can be rewarded for their green efforts.
Meanwhile, Quebec and Ontario have opted for cap and trade. Quebec has already developed its own market, which Ontario plans to join in 2017.
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture has long insisted cap and trade is the preferred carbon pricing option for farmers.
Despite these divisions, federal environment minister Catherine McKenna has said the federal government will not rule out imposing a national carbon price.
“What is really clear … is that every jurisdiction needs to have a price on carbon, and the premiers have all recognized that a price on carbon is part of the solution (to fight climate change),” McKenna said in an interview with CBC Radio’s The House.
So where does agriculture fit in? The federal government hasn’t said.
Farmers and industry groups continue to insist the industry must be recognized for its contributions around carbon sequestrations, which Alberta’s carbon credit program acknowledges.
Innovation is also critical. Farmers say more efficient crops and livestock practices are needed as longer growing seasons, variable weather patterns and shrinking land and water availability challenge the industry.
Agriculture Canada estimates that 10 percent of all emissions come from crop and livestock production in Canada, including the use of fossil fuel and fertilizer on farms.
Finding a way to balance those emissions with the industry’s need to feed a hungry world is a key public policy questions, which the federal government would best keep in mind.