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Monday, March 16, 2009

Clean energy and the environment: Obama impresses, Harper regresses

President Obama’s proposed 2010 budget makes it clear he intends to achieve significant progress on the climate change and clean energy front, despite the formidable economic crisis. The President had signaled his seriousness throughout his campaign for the presidency and then with his cabinet appointments. His budget now includes a wide-range of concrete steps toward reducing dependence on oil; makes huge investments in clean technology, renewable energy and energy efficiency; increases the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency by 35%; and generally aims at switching the transportation system to electric vehicles while increasing fuel economy standards in gas-powered vehicles.

Predictably the opposition in Congress is gearing up for battle, hysterically projecting enormous increases in gas prices at the pump and retail electricity rates, and calling the cap and trade proposal that will put a price on carbon to reduce CO2 emissions, “a tax on everything”. Sound familiar?

Whatever the outcome, Obama’s bold national leadership on global warming, and his determination to proceed, is unambiguous and genuine. And he will use his exceptional ability to connect with Americans over the heads of his opposition with all the tools at his disposal.

Contrast Harper’s approach to climate change and clean energy – the antithesis of bold national leadership, transparency, and constructive debate bringing Canadians together.

While Obama champions an effective national cap-and-trade system that sets hard caps on carbon emissions, Harper silenced any intelligent discussion during the last election and produced an anemic plan for intensity targets, applicable only to large industrial emitters, that is justly ridiculed for allowing emissions to rise with production levels. His recent budget lacked any serious environmental focus whatsoever, notably with respect to renewable energy and energy efficiency. The federal government is so missing in action that Ontario and Quebec have now joined Manitoba and British Columbia to extend caps on CO2 emissions beyond large industrial emitters as part of the California-led Western Climate Initiative.

While Obama has taken steps to encourage maximum progress at the state level, Harper has sat pathetically on the sidelines while forward-thinking proposals for a modest carbon tax, adopted in British Columbia last year, have been undermined at every turn by the provincial NDP opposition. And we are unlikely to hear anything positive from the prime minister about the far-sighted action in Ontario’s recent Green Energy Act.

While Obama and his administration debate openly and transparently (See and try to bring Americans together, Harper stifles debate at every turn, and prefers divisive regional wrangling and petty partisanship. Regional tensions, real or imagined, simmer and rise to fill the void left by the absence of national leadership. Canadians who express legitimate concern over the environmental impact of the oil sands development are subtly cast as eastern whiners, opposed to Alberta’s success in oil and gas. Quebec forges ahead to lock in huge exports of hydro-electric power to the United States, yet no national discussion takes place on the urgent need for an east-west smart electricity grid.

Recently, the prime minister has taken to complimenting himself on the strength of Canada’s banking system compared to the mess in other developed countries, notably the U.S. But he fails to draw the most important lesson. Our relative stability is due to long-standing coherent national regulation of our banking system, which fortuitously included higher capital ratios than was required internationally. Greater transparency has also meant that our exposure to sub-prime mortgages and synthetic derivatives was much less. In the U.S. during the 1930s, money-lending functions were assumed by local and state-chartered banks, leading to the decentralized, unregulated, anarchic system that exists today. In other words, we have a banking system that is stable thanks to coherent national action and regulation in Ottawa that predate Harper – the very kind of action required to make real progress on climate change and clean energy, but that Harper avoids.

Bold national leadership, transparency and constructive debate seem to be too much to hope for in Canada. No wonder so many Canadians look enviously at the United States and are cheering Obama on.

1 comment:

John Prince said...

Good post! Very informative. Thank you!