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Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative Premier Brian Pallister initially seemed very serious about confronting greenhouse gas emissions — a position that came as a surprise to many given the history of Canada’s conservative politicians sidestepping the tricky issue of climate change.
The party’s election platform pledged to “work with the federal government and other jurisdictions as we develop a made-in-Manitoba climate action plan.”
After winning a massive majority in April 2016, it hired Canadian climate policy legend and campaign manager David McLaughlin as senior adviser on the file.
An online survey was extended for an additional two weeks in March to allow for more public input.
These were all impressive things from a government led by Pallister, who had previously served as an MP in Stephen Harper’s notoriously anti-climate policy government.
But nearly 16 months later, the plan has never materialized.
The government effectively stopped talking about it. In fact, the latest action by the PCs has been to publicly announce that it’s seeking legal guidance on the constitutionality of a federally imposed carbon price, a move right out of recently resigned Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s playbook.
What on earth is going on?
Manitoba is in a near-ideal state to introduce climate policy that fulfills the federal requirement of carbon pricing.
The province has only a few “large emitters,” with a mere five sites that expel more than 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year.
A 2015 report by the Ottawa-based Ecofiscal Commission concluded that only four per cent of Manitoba’s GDP would be disadvantaged with carbon pricing. Meanwhile, a massive 18 per cent of both Alberta and Saskatchewan’s economies are deemed “emissions-intensive and trade-exposed.”
Furthermore, the federally mandated carbon pricing framework likely won’t require agriculture to be included, which is the second biggest contributor to greenhouse gases in Manitoba.
— DeSmog Canada (@DeSmogCanada) August 15, 2017
The federal government’s technical paper didn’t address nitrous oxides and methane, meaning the biggest sources of pollution from agriculture are not going to be included in Manitoba’s plan.
Almost all of Manitoba’s electricity is generated by the low-carbon and high-impact network of hydroelectric dams in the province’s north.
That leaves transportation and stationary combustion — such as residential and commercial building heat — affected by the carbon tax.
However, there are solutions for both of them via electrification and energy efficiency measures, which would be further incentivized by a price on carbon.
Disproportionate impacts on low-income residents could be easily addressed via a rebate program similar to Alberta’s.
Yet Manitoba is left without a plan, or any indication of when one will be released and implemented.
There are no easy explanations for what’s going on behind the scenes. The government itself has been mum beyond regurgitated talking points from their campaign platform.
For instance, Minister of Sustainable Development Cathy Cox has continually cited the ongoing creation of a “made-in-Manitoba climate plan with carbon pricing,” reflecting almost precise language contained in the mandate letter that she received from Pallister in May 2016.
She has also suggested that “the federal government should recognize the significant investments Manitoba has already made in renewable energy resources,” despite the fact that both B.C. and Quebec have large hydro resources while also implementing carbon pricing.
One potential reason for the delay is disagreements within the party itself about climate policy.
“It’s unclear whether or not there’s internal agreement within the government about how to proceed or whether to proceed,” Nathan Laser, campaigns coordinator for the Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition, told DeSmog Canada.
Similarly, Molly McCracken of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Manitoba said in an interview that “there are various schools of thought in the PC caucus.”
That may indeed be the source of delay.
But Pallister has also taken seemingly decisive action on a number of controversial issues, most notably healthcare: in recent months, the government has administered cuts to Winnipeg’s health authority that have in turn resulted in the closures of multiple emergency rooms and clinics.
There’s also a chance that Pallister is banking on the fact that a climate plan will be federally imposed on the province if not implemented provincially, meaning the Premier won’t have to unnecessarily spend political capital.
“The federal government has essentially provided an out to any provincial government that doesn’t want to act in saying that if you don’t act, we will,” Laser said.
It might be a clever political move, although it could result in the loss of $66 million in federal funding via the Low Carbon Economy Leadership Fund. And in the wake of Premier Wall’s resignation, it would make Pallister the most explicitly anti-climate policy leader in the country.
That’s why, on the morning of August 3, representatives from almost a dozen local organizations gathered on the steps of the Manitoba Legislature to officially launch the Manitoba Carbon Pricing Coalition.
They included Canadians for Clean Prosperity, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Climate Change Connection, Prairie Climate Centre, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Manitoba, Green Action Centre and Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition.
McCracken said it’s quite rare for many of the organizations to take a public stand of this nature but “their participation just shows the urgency of this issue and how we need to move on it.”
The coalition partners hold a wide array of opinions on specific policy issues, but agreed on six principles about carbon pricing in Manitoba: that it’s a key part of climate action, it must increase over time in a predictable and schedule way, and that it must be applied across jurisdictions to ensure fairness.
“Ultimately, our organizations have varying opinions on how a carbon tax should be structured and what the revenue could be invested towards,” Laser explained.
“But what we agreed to do is come together on the side of a) climate change is real and b) carbon pricing is a reasonable and effective tool in the toolbox in tackling climate change.”
“It’s not the only thing but it’s a real tool that could give us some revenue to tackle climate change and make investments,” Laser said.
This launch occurred exactly three weeks after another campaign by “Manitobans Against Carbon Taxes Coalition,” consisting of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Canadian Taxpayers Federation and Western Canadian Wheat Growers Association.
A poll from Angus Reid published in early July also suggested that 60 per cent of Manitobans oppose federally mandated carbon pricing.
That clearly leaves plenty of work for advocates of climate action.
Despite the government’s lack of visible progress on the file, local environmentalists and educators are indicating optimism that the Progressive Conservatives will make the most of the opportunity to re-position the province’s economy.
“The mere fact they did a press release on the same day that we did where they indicated they were seeking legal opinion says this is still on their mind,” Curt Hull, project manager at Winnipeg’s Climate Change Connection, told DeSmog Canada.
“We gave them a heads up that we were forming and they chose to time the release of their announcement of the seeking legal opinion on the same day. That’s fine: it means it’s still in their consciousness and they’re working towards it.”
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