Four Reasons the First Ministers’ Meeting on Climate Matters

Canada’s Premiers and Prime Minister are heading home from Vancouver tonight having launched a brand-new climate change negotiation process.

Set against a backdrop of clean tech power brokers and pipeline skirmishes, the lead-up to this week’s meeting generated headlines mainly for the fault lines it brought to the surface.

No doubt about it: tough conversations are coming, especially about the best way to price carbon pollution. But as the hot rhetoric cools down, here are four reasons for optimism from the results of this week’s First Ministers’ meeting.

First, this initiative is unprecedented. The politicians who signed today’s declaration said they’ll try to craft something we’ve never had before: a national plan to hit a climate target.

Under Paul Martin, we saw a climate plan proposal from Ottawa—but it was federal rather than national, and most of it didn’t go into effect. Prime Minister Harper, of course, never offered a serious plan to cut greenhouse gas pollution in line with Canada’s targets. And during the long years when Ottawa was missing in action, some premiers raced ahead, but others barely got out of the starting gate.

So if today’s agreement works—which, of course, is still a very big “if”—the outcome will be a Canadian first.

Two: this process gets the right players involved.

Climate change is way too big to fit neatly into an Environment Minister’s portfolio. It’s also an energy issue, an infrastructure issue, a finance issue, a transportation issue, and so on. To really succeed in tackling climate change, you need leadership right from the top—the puzzle pieces just don’t line up without it. Premiers and prime ministers need to make climate action a priority, decide in broad strokes how to go about it, and then give their ministers marching orders to get it done.

Similarly, we need both Ottawa and the provinces at the table: climate change is an area of shared jurisdiction. The federal government can provide funding, set (some) national standards, and negotiate for Canada at global climate talks, but provinces make crucial decisions about electricity and energy development.

So federal, provincial and territorial First Ministers are the right cast of characters to get Canada on track. It won’t be easy, of course—regional tensions were already on full display in Vancouver this week—but this participant list opens up the possibility of success.

Third—as Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall reminded everyone more than once—this was always a discussion about the economy, not “just” the environment. And that’s a good thing.

As the declaration puts it, the transition to a clean economy “is necessary to ensure the future prosperity of Canada and Canadians.”

Exactly. Our analysis, published this week, concluded that clean energy just had its best year ever globally, with US $367 billion invested—nearly 50 percent more than new investment in fossil fuel power.

You don’t even have to take our word for it. The CEO of Enbridge, best known for his Northern Gateway oil pipeline proposal, said this week that power generation—particularly from renewables—is “going to be a significant element of growth both in North America and globally.”

But while the U.S., China, Japan, and Mexico (to name just a few) saw their clean energy investment grow in 2015, Canada’s dropped by 46 percent relative to the year before.

We need to reverse that trend as soon as possible—our competitors certainly aren’t standing still. Which brings us to a final reason this meeting matters: the process that leaders announced today can deliver a plan to build Canada’s clean energy economy.

The traditional approach to climate negotiations has been to fight about the allocation of pain: Who will make the deepest cuts? Who will charge the highest prices? For obvious reasons, those are not easy political conversations—and the vastly different emission profiles of Canada’s provinces make them even trickier.

But with the global economy making a rapid shift from fossil to clean energy, there’s now a huge opportunity to talk about. Instead of arguing about what we’re going to cut, it’s time to figure out what we’re going to build.

We can’t tackle climate change without building a clean energy economy. At its core, the recipe for reducing greenhouse gas pollution in Canada (and anywhere else) is simple: invest in clean power and then electrify everything. Move away from using fossil fuels to drive our cars and heat our homes; use clean power instead.

In Canada, this means building far more clean power, along with a smarter grid and a new generation of cars, buildings, and industrial processes. And there’s money to be made every step of the way.

First Ministers acknowledged that reality in their declaration, which mentions the economy nearly as often as it does the climate. One of the four working groups this meeting established has a mandate to “stimulate economic growth, create jobs, and drive innovation”— and will do its work under the direction of ministers of economic development.

To reap those economic benefits, leaders need to use the months ahead to set ambitious clean energy goals for Canada—and then commit to policies to meet them. How much new clean power will we bring onto the grid? How many more electric vehicles will be on the road by 2030? How many buildings will we retrofit with state-of-the-art technologies to cut energy waste? How much clean technology will we be selling to the world? And in the process, how many new jobs will we create?

Canada’s governments, and all of us, need to seize this opportunity. Today’s meeting moved us a step closer to doing so.

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