What Canada can learn from the EU’s climate policy

Outside our borders, Canada is perhaps best known for its spectacular wilderness: its lakes, rivers, mountains and coastlines draw visitors from all over the globe.

Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, pointed to that same “rugged, natural beauty” when he campaigned on making environmental and clean energy leadership a priority.

And with his new government in place, Canada has launched an unprecedented national project in line with those campaign promises: crafting a climate plan that the federal government and all 13 provinces and territories can agree on.

Canada’s premiers and prime minister said this new national plan has to be strong enough to—at least—respect our country’s regional differences, hit Canada’s 2030 climate target, and come together before October.

It’s a very tall order, especially given the very different economic makeup of Canada’s provinces: climate action in Quebec looks very different than it does in Saskatchewan or in the Yukon.

But for any Canadians feeling daunted by the task ahead, we have good news: the European Union took on the same assignment and emerged with a solid package of climate and energy commitments that all its member countries agreed to.

But for any Canadians feeling daunted by the task ahead, we have good news: the European Union took on the same assignment and emerged with a solid package of climate and energy commitments that all its member countries agreed to.

What can Canada learn? The EU’s experience offers four lessons that may offer guidance as Canada starts down the path of crafting climate policy for a highly diverse society.

First, set goals for what you want to build, not just what you want to cut. Setting clean energy goals changes the conversation from one about how to allocate pain to one about cashing in on benefits. The EU climate package for 2030 didn’t just tell the world how much the EU would reduce greenhouse gas emissions—the agreements also contain targets for the clean economy the EU is building, emphasising the positive return from investments in clean energy and efficiency.

Second, carbon pricing is necessary but not sufficient. A price on carbon is an extremely effective climate policy tool: it makes polluting choices more expensive, thus rewarding clean choices throughout the economy. But the kinds of prices that are politically feasible today aren’t high enough to transform the way we use energy—and clean energy faces barriers that aren’t just related to price. So while the EU has had a cap-and-trade system in place for over a decade, carbon pricing is a foundation that supports many more layers of climate policies throughout the EU.

Third, agreeing on a policy package is just the first step. Canada’s governments have six tough months of climate analysis and negotiations ahead of them—and then the real work begins. Having a credible plan is essential, and it would be a real breakthrough in a country that’s never made a serious national effort to achieve a climate target. But implementing policy promises can be even tougher than committing to them.

The EU’s experience shows that governments need to be in this for the long haul, as do the businesses, experts, NGOs and citizens who care about climate action. We find that governments are far more likely to stay on track when they keep their eyes firmly fixed on the rewards of the clean energy transition—jobs, GDP growth, and investment, along with environmental and reputational gains—than when they’re arguing about how they don’t need to do as much as their neighbour.

So a final lesson from the EU’s experience, one that the EU itself is still working on: a good planning process wraps up fairly quickly, so that the lobbyists can move over to make space for the engineers. Once companies know the rules of the game—and realize that they can’t avoid playing it—experience shows that change can happen at a far lower cost than industry and government predicted.

Today, the EU and Canada face common challenges in crafting climate policies that work for large and diverse jurisdictions. Both governments see huge potential in the fast-growing clean energy economy, and both want to ensure they are positioned to succeed in a clean energy world.

Both contributed to the success of the Paris climate negotiations, which resulted in an agreement that brought the world together in committing to action to avoid dangerous climate change—and, in the process, gives a world-wide boost to the clean energy sector’s momentum.

But while the EU has been a long-time leader, Canada’s federal government spent most of the past decade missing in action on climate change and clean energy. The one advantage of arriving late at the party? We can learn from those who came before us. The lessons we’ve outlined here are just the beginning of what could be a very rich collaboration.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the EU’s diplomatic presence in Canada. With Canada’s climate agenda finally heading into high gear, the timing is perfect to celebrate that anniversary with a Canada-EU dialogue on climate change and clean energy—hopefully accompanied by an ambitious climate plan in Canada.

Written by Merran Smith and Teresa Ribera. Merran Smith is the executive director of Clean Energy Canada. Teresa Ribera is director of IDDRI, a Paris-based sustainable development policy institute.

Originally published in the Hill Times on May 4, 2016.

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