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Harper vs. Kyoto: where does that leave Québec?

February 2, 2012

4-minute read

On 12 December 2011, the Canadian Minister of Environment, Peter Kent, officially announced Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol. In effect, Canada will no longer be legally constrained to meet greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets. According to Scott McKay, the Parti québécois’s Shadow Minister for the Environment, “the gap is widening between Québec and the rest of Canada on climate-related issues”.

One of the reasons put forward by Minister Kent is the $14G which the country has been forced to pay in carbon offsets because it was unable to honour the targets set in the Protocol. According to government estimates, Canadian emissions in 2012 will exceed by nearly 30% the Kyoto target. Many blame exploitation of Alberta’s tar sands. Fossil fuel industries, mines, and transportation represent nearly 45% of the country’s exports (20 percentage points more than in Québec). One shouldn’t be surprised, then, that Conservatives are defending the withdrawal from an economic standpoint. Rex Murphy, in a CBC editorial, aptly summarizes the Conservatives’ opinion. Evoking Canada’s wish to maintain the industrial sector’s growth, he defends the Kyoto withdrawal and upholds that tar sands have saved the country from the worst during the recession.

But where exactly does Québec stand in this whole story?

Many MPs, including PQ’s Scott McKay and Amir Khadir, Québec solidaire MP and spokesperson, have condemned Harper’s government’s decision. The Official Opposition bemoaned the fact that there were no Québec delegates at the Durban conference and critiqued Charest’s government for having allowed “free rein” to the Conservatives, who carried on with a stand diametrically opposed to that of Québec. For his part, Mr. Khadir considers that “it is unacceptable that oil lobbies have taken over control of both Canada’s foreign and domestic policies”. Incidentally, some believe that Québecs independence would have enabled it to swell the ranks of countries set on keeping Kyoto on the right track. Representatives of the Liberal Party, renowned to be right-wing but also known for their pro-Kyoto stance, find Ottawa’s decision regrettable. Québec’s Minister for Environment, Pierre Arcand, believes that Canada should demonstrate more leadership and ambition on the issue, instead of always falling in line with the Americans.

On a Web platform, a great number of Québec indignants have taken a stand against the Kyoto disengagement, one amongst several Conservative policies viewed unfavourably. Many denounce the fact that the Conservative government does not represent the Canadian people nor its environmental values and critique the regime as being antidemocratic and serving the oil industry.

Some say the Canadian decision to disengage from Kyoto tarnishes Québec’s “green province” trademark. Québec is often seen as a leader within Canada in the fight against climate change, namely because of the importance of hydroelectricity in its energy balance. Indeed, Québec can boast the second lowest emission rate per inhabitant amongst Canadian provinces and territories with a rate 50% lower than that of the rest of Canada. Looking to the long term, Québec has borrowed the European GHG reduction objective: to cut back emissions of at least 20% below 1990 levels by 2020. Some consider it to be the most ambitious target in North America. Moreover, the Protocol shaped Québec’s planing: the province based both its GHG reduction objectives for 2008-2012 and its 2006-2015 Energy Strategy on Kyoto. In the face of the results brought forward by Québec’s long-standing efforts in fighting climate change, it’s no surprise to see that Ottawa’s decision has appalled the province’s population.

Nevertheless, Québec Liberals’ pro-climate position most likely stems from economic rather than environmental concerns. Indeed, the Harper government’s decision is detrimental to the Charest government’s economic interests. An eventual carbon tax (based on Kyoto) was seen as an effective way to secure a return on investments associated with the Plan Nord. Indeed, in the context of such a fiscal measure, Charest’s government was hoping to attract corporations wishing to take advantage of Québec hydroelectricity’s low carbon footprint to reduce their emissions, and therefore spare themselves the costs associated with this tax. Furthermore, an increase in hydroelectricity demand would have hiked its price. According to the Liberals, the anticipated boost in revenue could fund the Plan Nord’s projected $47G investments in electricity.

In Québec, the Kyoto withdrawal is an environmental and a national identity issue, but the stakes are also economic.

Québec’s Ministry for Environment has incidentally assured that the disengagement will not distract the province from its objectives in relation to GHG reduction. Three days after his federal counterpart announced the Kyoto withdrawal, Mr. Arcand disclosed that the provincial government was implementing a “cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emission allowances” in 2013. It would come as a first step in preparing for a regional North American carbon market, which the Western Climate Initiative seeks to create. Participants have been reduced to California and four Canadian provinces, now that six American states have withdrawn from the initial project. In contrast with the federal government’s refusal to participate in a climate exchange without the U.S., Québec becomes the first province laying out the foundations for such a system. The worst corporate polluters will thus have to reduce their emissions or buy from “cleaner” companies carbon credits set at $10 per tonne.

The carbon market has already been met with many critiques and warnings, despite the enthusiasm of a few Québec ecological groups. Some of its detractors point out that it’s a market solution, which aims to privatize the atmosphere by selling rights to pollute without questioning the fundamental issue of fossil-fuel dependency. Others consider the concept to be too abstract and complex to insure an efficient control of emissions. In contrast, a carbon tax is perceived to be more straightforward both in implementation and administration.

As the Climate Action Network was presenting Canada with the Fossil of the Year Award, the organization concluded that “it’s time to turn our backs on the government’s policies and move on with a coalition of the willing built from people, cities and provinces that understand the urgent need for action”. Québec’s Liberals definitely seem to be a part of this “coalition of the willing”, just maybe not for the right reasons.

Laura Handal works at IRIS, a Montreal-based progressive think tank.

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