First impressions of the “clean air” act

Keynes famously quipped that “in the long run we are all dead.” That’s sort of how I feel about the “clean air” act: it does absolutely nothing in the short-run but may have some benefit some time after rising sea levels wipe out half of Greater Vancouver.

In spite of all of the talk about real regulation, the proposed act falls woefully short. I suppose the Conservatives knew that environmentalists would criticize their plan no matter what they did, so they decided to do next to nothing.

The big announcement was for a 45-65% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions below 2003 levels by … wait for it … 2050. Kyoto was not mentioned. It is worth noting that GHG emissions increased by 24% between 1990 and 2003, according to Environment Canada. This is not the Conservatives’ fault, of course; it is the result of Liberal dithering on the issue. In fact GHG emissions increased by 3% between 2002 (when the Liberals signed on to Kyoto) and 2003.

So nothing is going to happen in the short-run, and if future governments cannot live up to this promise there will be no one to blame because the entire Tory caucus will likely be dead by then.

Another non-measure is to consult with industry for three years (after the Liberals just consulted with industry for, um, three years) to set “intensity based” targets for GHGs and other emissions. The resort to “intensity based” emissions is also much ado about nothing because as technology improves the intensity of emissions relative to output will fall anyway. Environment Canada notes that Canada’s GHG emissions per unit of GDP fell by 13% between 1990 and 2003, while total GHGs went way up.

The backgrounder from Environment Canada has a nice summary of where GHG emissions are coming from: 37% from the electicity and petroleum industries; 24% from transportation; 15% from mining and manufacturing industries; 11% from residential, commercial and institutional sources; 8% from agriculture; and the remainder from miscellaneous sources.

So the absence of the terms “oil”, “petroleum”, “coal” and “electricity” from the government’s press release is striking. Some measures are proposed for the auto industry, such as developing new regulations for fuel consumption, but not until 2011.

Another aspect of the plan is to harmonize vehicle emissions standards with those of the United States over the next 12 months, and to harmonize regulations with those of the U.S. for volatile organic compound emissions in consumer and commercial products over the next year. Given the massive deregulatory thrust of the Bush administration in recent years, this is not much comfort. Further, harmonization (long sought by industry) could preclude us from seting higher standards in the future.

Even in the area of air pollution, which the Tories were trying to confuse with GHGs, the actions are barely worth noting. National targets for smog and ozone will be set … by 2025.
All in all, this is a profoundly disappointing announcement that does not live up to its billing. It should not be referred to as the “Clean Air Act” as this accepts the framing of the bill by the government. The obvious counter would be the “Hot Air Act”, or perhaps something like “Slightly cleaner air for your distant ancestors (as long as they do not live by a coastline) Act”

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