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What could and what should Budget 2012 look like on energy and climate change?

The Harper government will deliver their first majority government budget tomorrow.  There is a lot of anxiety going into this budget with big cuts expected. While the government is denying it is an austerity budget, leaked documents have certainly set this tone with deep cuts to the public service, changes delaying eligibility for Old Age Security and more. For a broader look at what is being reported in the media about this budget, see Brent Patterson’s blog: UPDATE: What will we see in Budget 2012?.

On energy and climate change, I expect this budget to reflect the confrontational tone set by the Harper government, including the framing of anyone that questions the unsustainable expansion in the tar sands as ‘extremists’   or ‘adversaries of Canada.’

Canada’s cut backs to monitoring air quality which recently provoked international rebuke are a taste of what is to come. My expectations for the right choices to be made are low and I certainly fear the outcome of further spending cuts to Environment Canada and the gutting of important federal legislation.

Here are some questions relevant to energy and climate change that I’ll be looking for in tomorrow’s budget announcement:

Will this budget cut Environment Canada’s budget, gut environmental assessments and the Fisheries Act?

Media reports have suggested this budget will see unprecedented cuts and the gutting of the Environmental Assessment Act, the Fisheries Act and potentially the Species at Risk Act.

Streamlining is a buzz word often used by Environment Minister Peter Kent and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver. The problem is that streamlining in the context of this majority government means fewer and fewer barriers to projects aimed at exporting Canada’s energy (preferably it their raw form) , despite the environmental consequences. According to the Globe and Mail, “The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, the government centre of expertise for ensuring that industrial projects do not harm natural ecosystems, is expected to see its funding chopped by 43 per cent in 2012-13, from around $30 million to about $17 million.”

Not surprisingly (but nevertheless entirely disappointing), Enbridge, the corporation behind the Northern Gateway pipeline project to ship tar sands crude to international markets via BC’s coast, fiercely lobbied for this. According to Greenpeace,  official filings with the federal lobbyist registry find Enbridge has been advocating for regulatory streamlining – “seeking improved efficiencies in the government secondary permitting processes for Department of Fisheries and Oceans Permits and Transport Canada permits for pipeline construction, seeking improved efficiencies in the environmental assessment processes.”

Leaked changes to the Fisheries Act that will reduce the protections for fish habitats from industrial development, has prompted over 600 scientists along with former Conservative fisheries ministers to respond, rejecting the proposed changes.

The Council of Canadians, alongside other groups representing tens of thousands of Canadians, are  urging the federal government to stop its plan to weaken long-standing environmental laws that keep communities safe from toxic chemicals and safeguard our air, water, land and species. Read a join press release here. For more analysis on the impacts of proposed changes to the Fisheries Act, see this piece by Andrew Nikiforuk in The Tyee.

What will become of the EcoENERGY programs?

Improving the efficiency of housing and building stock across Canada is a no brainer – it reduces emissions, lowers energy bills and generates jobs.  In last year’s budget, a $400 million contribution to energy efficiency for homes under the EcoENERGY Retrofit Homes program was pledged. The problem is this was a onetime contribution, not the multi-year pledge that is needed.

One of the big disappointments in last year’s budget was the failure to renew the ecoENERGY renewable power programme, which had spent $1.4 billion supporting renewable power.

Will this budget finally see Canada phase out fossil fuel subsidies?

Well, the answer is certainly no, given that Minister Oliver actually denies that Canada is subsidizing fossil fuels.  Check out this interview with artist Franke James where Oliver openly denies Canada subsidizes the oil and gas industry.  The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers also denies the subsidies.

I can’t help but feel affronted when a politician openly lies. Canada subsidizes the industry to the tune of $1.38 billion a year. If you want to know the details of how Canada’ subsidizes the industry, check out Climate Action Network Canada’s report, Fuelling the Problem: Why it’s Time to end Tax Breaks to Oil, Coal and Gas Companies in Canada.

In 2009, Harper joined other G-20 leaders in pledging to phase out fossil fuel subsidies which undermine renewable energy development and support our dangerous addiction to fossil fuels. Internal memos from federal staff have recommended phasing these subsidies out. Ending subsidies is by no means a radical demand.  Proponents include a former Conservative MP, the NDP, the International Energy Agency, International Monetary Fund and President Obama.

$1.38 billion a year is a significant sum of money that must be re-directed for better use.

Will this budget see Canada prioritize green infrastructure spending?

Vastly improving energy conservation and energy efficiency, expanding public and community owned renewable energy and mass public transit are all critical. The federal government must work with provinces, territories, municipalities and First Nations to achieve this.

The Alternative federal budget advocates for a National Green Homes Strategy with the goal of retrofitting 100% of Canada’s housing stock by 2030, starting with the coal of 15% by 2015 – with a focus on prioritizing lower income housing. It would allocate$250 million a year for five years to this goal. This goal is not only attainable, but simply makes sense.

The alternative federal budget also rightly proposes re-instating corporate income tax rates on petroleum production to the former 28% (prior to 2001) which would raise in excess of $2 billion a year which could help with these priorities.

There needs to be federal, provincial and municipal support for renewable energy production. Renewable energy projects should be the product of open consultations with communities and are best under public and community ownership.  There are opportunities to build public regional grids for renewable power integrated across provincial borders where synergies exist.

The last three federal budgets, even when infrastructure spending was prioritized, have failed to take advantages of these opportunities. Instead, the Harper government often touts nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage as solutions to the climate crisis.

Will this budget see Canada repay our climate debt to the Global South?

Global North (developed countries) are responsible for emitting more than two-thirds of historic greenhouse gas emissions into an atmosphere that all life shares. Meanwhile, Global South (developing) countries are being hit first and hardest by the ecological, social and economic impacts of climate change. Mobilization of finance in the scale of hundreds of billions per year from the Global North to the South is needed to cover the costs of enabling people to deal with the immediate and long term impacts of climate change.

Canada’s pledge for international climate financing under the Copenhagen Accord was $400 million. International climate financing was not directly addressed in Budget 2011. Canada has committed to spending $1.2 billion for the fiscal years 2010/11, 2011/12 and 2012/2013. The Third World Network reports that G77 countries and China have called on Annex 1 countries to commit at least 1.5% of GDP annually toward G77 climate-change mitigation by 2020. According to the World Bank, Canada’s GDP in 2009 was $1.3 trillion. Others estimate that Global South countries will need up to 6% of Annex 1 countries’ GDP annually to adapt to the effects of climate change. Using these estimates, Canada would need to allocate between $20 to $80billion for Global South Climate Financing. The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ 2009 UN World Economic and Social Survey estimated that $500 billion to $600 billion annually in public funds is needed for adaptation and mitigation in Global South countries.

If the Harper government was serious about responding to the climate crisis and protecting Canadian energy security, here are six commitments we would want to see in Budget 2012 and this parliamentary session:

1.Commitment to phase out all subsidies for fossil-fuel based energy production as well as subsidies for carbon-capture and storage.

2.Commitment to green infrastructure investments of at least $10 billion dollars over each of the next two years to five areas: energy conservation through building retrofits and renewable energy projects, mass transit, passenger rail and affordable housing.

3. Commitment to a national plan for greenhouse gas emission reductions. Recent science indicates that Global North country reductions of at least 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020, moving to much deeper reductions by 2050 are needed. The private members Bill C-224 (the Climate Change Accountability Act which included a target of 25 per cent reductions below 1990 levels by 2020) that was killed by the Senate would have been an important starting point for moving towards achieving the deeper emission reduction targets climate justice demands.

4.Commitment to end federal funds used to lobby against other countries’ climate policies, such as the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard and the European Union Fuel Quality Directive.

5.Commitment to cease approving new tar sands projects and stop promoting the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline based on: the devastating impacts of unsustainable expansion in the tar sands; the serious risks posed by the pipeline and tanker traffic; significant opposition from Indigenous communities.

6.Commitment to enter into negotiations with the U.S. and Mexico to repeal the energy provisions of NAFTA and chapter 11 – based on protecting Canadian energy security and the assault of recent lawsuits – and reject similar energy provisions in any future trade agreement.