Climatic paralysis of the Prairie provinces

In terms of opposition to Justin Trudeau’s federal government, Alberta and Saskatchewan have come to dethrone Quebec. Rather than simply demanding full powers, with full respect for the laws and courts, the two Prairie provinces are engaging in stratagems to avoid decisions and legislation that they do not like. Autonomism with a single cause, that of fossil energy, in their own economic interest, paralyzing urgent climate action.

These two provinces have rejected on every occasion federal measures – read here especially “liberal” – aimed at slowing down global warming. The latest subterfuge in the running: the Saskatchewan government no longer imposes taxes on its citizens, since 1er January, the federal carbon tax on natural gas home heating bills. A response to the breach opened by Justin Trudeau in his carbon pricing for oil heating, benefiting proportionately more residents of the Atlantic provinces. The government of Scott Moe, which will seek an election next October, has even modified provincial law to protect its energy management against any federal prosecution.

The province and its neighbor Alberta had served a warning, by each adopting a law ruling on their “sovereignty” vis-à-vis Ottawa. Rejecting the urgency of the transition from fossil fuels, they have put these threats into action in recent months. The ordered autonomy practiced by Quebec has given way to this so-called regionalist sovereignty which has become, in the West, anarchic.

The carbon tax is therefore no longer imposed in Saskatchewan. In Manitoba, under New Democrat Wab Kinew, it is no longer applied to gasoline at the pump. Scott Moe and his Alberta counterpart, Danielle Smith, rejected federal regulations targeting the sale of only electric or hybrid vehicles by 2035. Just like those targeting electric carbon neutrality from the same year, and those capping emissions from sectors oil and gas in 2030.

Their electric grids are obviously much further behind than those of other provinces. They are powered by their fossil fuels 89% in Alberta and 81% in Saskatchewan, while almost all of the electricity comes from renewable energies in Quebec (94% hydroelectricity), in Ontario (92%) or British Columbia (96%). Federal regulations, however, provide a certain flexibility in achieving carbon neutrality: the choice of renewable energy to be developed, the use of natural gas permitted in the event of a lack of capacity. The oil and natural gas industries see their emissions capped, but not their production.

Certain provinces, their industries and their populations have also demonstrated that, unless they are forced to do so, they will not advance at the pace required by the climate challenge. The purchase of electric or hybrid vehicles, for example, is highest only in provinces that have imposed sales mandates on manufacturers — representing 23% of new registrations in Quebec, during the first three quarters of 2023, compared to 8 % in Saskatchewan.

Quebecers are not beyond reproach. They still prefer pick-ups (although there are electric or hybrid models) to cars. If even in Quebec citizens are still hesitant to adapt their behavior, this shows the gap in desire to act which is still holding back the Prairies.

The federal government’s field of climate action, however pressing the crisis may be, is not without limits. The courts have wisely reiterated this, criticizing the “excessive scope” of the Trudeau government’s interventions in banning plastic and its reform of environmental assessment. A timely call to order, after the Supreme Court approved the federal reinterpretation of the fields of jurisdiction in the carbon tax file and while we do not know how much longer the Quebec carbon exchange will be judged sufficient by Ottawa beyond 2026.

Justin Trudeau’s climate ambition and haste have contributed to this antagonistic climate which pits him against certain provinces today. The ideological and dogmatic opposition of the latter, however, is not unrelated to the conservative color of their governments, which have simply sunk into their pre-existing stubbornness.

A return to cooperative and respectful federalism would be desirable, rather than this natural and recurring reflex of Mr. Trudeau to impose his national standards at all costs. In the environmental file, however, any accommodation would only reinforce the recalcitrants in their intransigent opposition to action, rather than encouraging them to temper their own obstruction.

And while the planet and Canada overheated again last year, it is the race against time to stabilize this warming which risks suffering from this political stasis.

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