Canada’s Election: The Impact on Canada’s Environmental Policy

May 15th, 2011 | By | Category: Analysis, News and Notes, Canada, Environmental Management

Electoral Surprise

The surprising thing about Canada’s May 2, 2011 federal election is not so much that the Canadian electorate returned a majority at last for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government but that it deserted the Liberal Party in droves to catapult the National Democratic Party (NDP) into second position, making the NDP Canada’s official opposition party for the first time in its history.  Politically polarized to the right and to the left, the Conservatives and the NDP are also at odds in their approach to the environment.

New Dynamic

What a Conservative majority holds for Canada’s environmental policy may be inferred from projected budget cuts announced earlier this year. The Conservatives propose reductions in environmental services of more than CAD 1.6 billion per annum. The cuts include a 59 percent reduction in global-warming and air-pollution spending, the end of a popular retrofit program that subsidized homeowners for renovations that reduce energy consumption and utility bills, and winding down an action plan to deal with contaminated federal sites.

By contrast, a long list of NDP preelection promises included commitments to re-introduce greenhouse gas reduction legislation, to introduce an emissions trading scheme (ETS), to apply the proceeds of auctioned greenhouse gas emission allowances to green projects and undertakings, and to introduce home retrofit programs.

If the NDP’s success is an indication that the environment remains a hot political issue in Canada, it is underwritten by the success of Canada’s Green Party in securing its first seat in federal Parliament. The point is not whether the NDP and the Green Party are right but whether the Conservatives can afford to ignore the weight of political opinion on this issue as their term progresses and the next election comes into view.

A few years back, Mr. Harper’s Liberal Party predecessors were on the point of introducing federal climate change legislation to comply with Canada’s Kyoto Protocol obligations.  Federal Canada will now, it seems, watch from the sidelines as the United States develops its climate change program.

A Leadership Role for Canada?

There are good practical reasons for Canada to wait for or work in tandem with the United States to develop a compatible ETS. An ETS needs the liquidity that a larger market has to offer. However, there are significant advantages to being first mover in these markets even if the ETS has to be altered later. The United Kingdom’s pilot ETS and the opportunity to learn by doing undoubtedly contributed to its leading position in the European Union ETS markets.

Canada’s opportunity to be the North American leader in environmental policy is, however, not necessarily lost. The constitutional power to regulate the environment lies primarily with the provinces.  Several Canadian provinces are well advanced in developing and implementing climate change regulation in response to their commitments under the Western Climate Initiative (WCI). Notably, Alberta, a non-WCI signatory, leads the pack with Canada’s first legislated ETS.  Ontario has also made a significant commitment to cease coal-fired electricity generation by 2014 and has introduced North America’s first feed-in tariff, designed to incentivize renewable energy generation.

It will be interesting to see how the interplay of electoral interests, changes in the economic climate, and provincial and U.S. activity impact Canadian federal environmental policy and activity in the next few years.

© Manning Environmental Law 2011

About the Author 

Paul Manning is principal at Manning Environmental Law and an Environmental Law Specialist, Certified by the Law Society of Upper Canada.  He has practiced environmental law for more than twenty years in the UK and in Canada. During that time he has dealt with most areas of environmental law for a diverse range of clients. Paul’s practice focuses on environmental, energy, aboriginal and planning law. He appears regularly as counsel in Tribunals and the Courts. He has a special interest in renewable energy and climate change regulation and holds a Certificate in Carbon Finance from the University of Toronto.

Photograph: Parliament Hill by Maple Rose.

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