Agriculture poses sticking point at climate change meeting

Reporters staking out the first ministers meeting on climate change knew they were in for a long night when the pizza showed up.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the country’s premiers had been holed up in Ottawa’s foreign affairs buildings for hours as they tried to negotiate a national climate change plan that included a price on carbon. Reporters milled about the media room, pouncing on any poor official who emerged from the meeting room.

A key pillar in its 2015 election promise, the federal Liberal government was doing everything it could to secure a historic agreement on climate change before the weekend hit.

Postponing discussions was not an option, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said, even if several provinces still weren’t onside.

The final negotiations were not without drama. As expected, Sask-atchewan Premier Brad Wall remained steadfast in his opposition, repeating his promise to take Ottawa to court if needed.

But British Columbia and Manitoba were also nervous. B.C. Premier Christy Clark told reporters she was worried the proposed plan would be more a burden on Western Canada, warning she would not sign any agreement that did not include some way of ensuring the deal was fair for all.

Twenty minutes later, as reporters were scarfing down slices of deluxe pizza, word broke B.C. had signed on.

But now Manitoba was holding out, refusing to sign the deal until Ottawa promised more federal health-care funding.

Not all the negotiating was happening in the room, either. Friday morning, McKenna’s office told iPolitics that Saskatchewan farmers could be subject to exemptions like those found in B.C. The province’s plan exempts purple gas and diesel and provides a substantial rebate for greenhouse producers who rely on natural gas to heat their operations.

The possibility of agricultural exemptions caught Saskatchewan by surprise. The premier has repeatedly argued farmers will be hurt by the proposed carbon tax, which Wall said will cost producers up to $80,000 per year.

Agree to the agricultural exceptions and Saskatchewan could be seen as supporting the federal tax — a position Wall clearly wanted to avoid.

In the end, the premier argued that land-locked Saskatchewan’s agriculture industry was not comparable to British Columbia’s, where growers have easy access to the West Coast. A carbon tax, Wall argued, would also see the price of key agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and pesticide increase, which are two products not covered by B.C.’s exemptions.

Disagreements on agriculture surfaced again during the evening press conference, when Trudeau revealed that a national deal had been reached.

Trudeau was asked how he planned to ensure Canadian agriculture would remain competitive, particularly given the variety of exemptions for the sector both internationally and inter-provincially.

Premiers, he replied, would be able to use the revenue generated to develop programs and supports for people, like farmers, who may be vulnerable. Trudeau did not respond to a follow-up question asking whether support for agriculture would be seen as an agricultural subsidy by the World Trade Organization.

“If I can give all the money back that he’s paid in carbon taxes and she’s paid in taxes, what’s the point? How does that change behaviour,” Wall responded as Trudeau shook his head and at one point rolled his eyes.

“There’s a lot of good analysis of how impactful carbon pricing is, and I recommend it to everyone to take a look at,” the prime minister said.

The Pan-Canadian Framework will come into force January 2018, although many provinces, including Alberta and Ontario, are rolling out their climate change plans Jan. 1.

The House of Commons agriculture committee has agreed to look at ways government’s can help farmers “better adjust to the increasing severity of issues associated with climate change and better address water and soil conservation issues” in the new year.

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