The report cards are in, and there’s room for improvement

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If you’re looking for good news from a trio of new provincial climate action assessments, here it is: accountability is alive and well in Canada.

We know what’s working, and we know what’s missing.

The tougher news is that no one — neither the leaders nor the laggards — can claim they’re doing enough to hit their 2020 targets.

British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario all received climate change report cards, in various formats, as they head into the summer months.

Two of the three assessments showed promise, but also carried a clear “room for improvement” message. The third — and yes, that would be Alberta — got what can only be described as a failing grade from its Auditor-General.

Let’s start with B.C., whose report card came from the government itself via the annual Climate Action in British Columbia Progress Report. It’s always an advantage to decide your own grades, and B.C. does take the time to celebrate its success: as B.C.’s Environment Minister writes, “I am pleased to report that the most recent emissions data shows B.C. has achieved its first interim target.” The province met that 2012 marker through a combination of policy initiatives (notably its flagship carbon tax), offsets, and the effects of “events outside B.C.’s control,” like the economic downturn.

But the report is also refreshingly honest about what needs to happen next: much more. The assessment states that “with current policies remaining as they are, B.C. greenhouse gas emissions may begin to increase” — and they have to fall significantly to hit the province’s 2020 goal.

B.C. also acknowledges that its LNG ambitions come at a climate cost. Even if the province achieves its goal of having the world’s cleanest LNG facilities, they will “still bring about an overall emissions increase for the province.”

While B.C.’s assessment offers few specifics about what needs to change, it does drop some hints. Those include a higher carbon price, policies to address “non-combustion emissions” like those from venting in natural gas production, and cleaner transportation.

Ontario received the heftiest report card of the bunch, courtesy of the province’s Environmental Commissioner. His detailed and thoughtful assessment finds that, like B.C., Ontario is likely on track to hit its interim (2014) climate goal — but also like B.C., Canada’s biggest province will need to do much more to hit its next target in 2020.

With more than a third of Ontario’s emissions coming from transportation, the Commissioner zeroes in on that sector. Ontario should do more to develop smart, walkable communities and invest in transit, he writes. Thanks to the province’s success in weaning itself off coal power, electric vehicles are now an effective way to cut Ontario’s transportation emissions.

He also calls on Ontario to put a price on carbon, writing that the province is “moving too slowly” in adopting a cap-and-trade system even as neighbouring Quebec surges ahead in partnership with California.

And then there’s Alberta, which languishes at the back of this particular class. The province’s Auditor-General looked at Alberta’s progress against three of his office’s past climate change recommendations, and awarded failing grades on two of them.

Alberta adopted a climate strategy in 2008, but the Auditor-General “found no evidence” that the province monitored its performance against its targets, nor has it decided which criteria to use to choose or assess its climate policies. Alberta’s approach also risks double-counting reductions, uses inconsistent reporting, and relies on “informal” reviews of the accuracy of its implementation plans.

Despite these management practices, by early 2012 the province was able to determine that “Alberta was not on track to meet its 2020 target,” which relies on very significant reductions from carbon capture and storage that are not materializing as the province had hoped.

The Auditor-General sums the situation up nicely when he writes that Alberta’s slow progress “does not reflect the significance that effectively managing climate change has for the economy and environmental performance in Alberta and in Canada.”

Exactly. Climate action is a big deal for our economy and our environment, from coast to coast to coast.

Clearly, the students in Canada’s climate class have some homework to do.

Fortunately, help is available. Premiers have already committed to working together on a Canadian Energy Strategy at this summer’s Council of the Federation meeting, which will be held in Charlottetown in late August. Earlier this month, Ontario gave that strategy a boost in its Speech from the Throne, which called for a co-ordinated approach that reduces carbon pollution and gives clean energy a central role.

A strong Canadian Energy Strategy could help all Canada’s jurisdictions make the kinds of choices they need to pull up their grades. The real test is whether we can help build a low-carbon economy and prosper in it — and of course, that’s an exam no province wants to fail.

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