Canada should play a leadership role defining North American climate policy rather than simply adhering to targets set by Washington.
My tailpipe is your tailpipe. Starting with the 2011 model year, cars and light trucks sold in Canada will have to meet the same greenhouse gas emissions limits as those sold in the U.S., and those limits will get tougher each year until 2016. Announcing the plan earlier this month, Environment Minister Jim Prentice was “pleased to be taking this step with the United States — a step that will protect our environment and ensure a level playing field for the automotive industry.”
Canada and the U.S. had just made bilateral progress on an environmental issue. But what had prompted the two countries to cooperate?
The coordinated standards came after years of litigation between California and the big automakers over the state’s ability to set more stringent tailpipe emissions limits than the rest of the country — something no automaker wanted to see. Yet eventually California obtained a waiver to set its own standards, which the Obama administration then turned into a nationwide proposal. The Canadian government, under pressure to level the playing field, imported the standards back home.
Bilateral progress on an environmental issue, sure, but at the behest of California and on terms largely set south of the border – terms that Canada matched when the time was right.
This wait-and-match approach is nothing new for Canada. The federal government commonly takes its cue from the U.S. on environmental issues. For three decades, it has played catch-up with the U.S. on vehicle emissions limits. It has adopted a toxic chemical release inventory like the one in the States. And it routinely borrows U.S. standards and practices for environmental regulation. UBC professor George Hoberg calls it “convergence under U.S. leadership.”
Of course, there are times when Canada has taken a more proactive role in negotiating environmental issues with its neighbor.
Take, for example, a hallmark of Canada-U.S. environmental cooperation, the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty. The U.S. had proposed the treaty after Canada announced plans to divert water from the Niagara River – the very same water that was running through American hydro dams downstream. Canada, meanwhile, was worried about water levels in the Great Lakes when Chicago began building a channel to reverse the flow of the city’s sewage from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. Given the political circumstances, the two countries were able to negotiate a treaty that now governs over 3,830 kilometers of Canada-U.S. boundary waters.
But when it comes to North American climate policy, Canada is following the U.S. lead. The key negotiations are happening not between countries but among Senators. Discussing whether Canada should use market mechanisms or command-and-control regulations to limit industrial greenhouse gas emissions, Minister Prentice stated, “Canada can go down either road—cap-and-trade on the one hand or regulation on the other. But, ladies and gentlemen, we will go down neither road alone.”
He’s right. The U.S. will be there too as long as Canadian government keeps itself planted firmly in the passenger seat of North American federal climate policy. That policy is increasingly being made south of the border are then dressed up in shades of bilateralism, as the story behind the new vehicle emissions standards shows.
Of course, there are advantages and disadvantages to a wait-and-match policy for regulating greenhouse gas emissions. On one hand, it may dissuade Canadian firms from relocating to the U.S. to avoid greenhouse-gas regulations at home. On the other, it means outsourcing some policy control to Congress, and with it some opportunity to address Canadian interests.
Indeed, the same climate policy will have different impacts on the States than on Canada, given the differences in each country’s industrial base, geography and politics. One size does not necessarily fit all of North America. President Nixon captured this sentiment years ago in a 1972 address to Canadian Parliament: “It is time for us to recognize that we have very separate identities; that we have significant differences; and that nobody’s interests are furthered when these realities are obscured.”
With the future of climate policy still up in the air, there is no end in sight for Canadian-U.S. cooperation on environmental issues. But if the Canadian government foresees a future in which it continues to wait-and-match U.S. climate policies, it should not wait to examine the impact those policies will have north of the border. Having that debate today is the best way to make sure U.S. leadership works for Canada and doesn’t just tell it what to do.