Economy vs. Environment: Weighing Priorities

Climate Change Law Practice Group Blog

May 09, 2011

In a recent article by the Toronto Sun's Lorrie Goldstein, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was criticized as treating the Canadian public like children by failing to provide details of a plan to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to 607 megatonnes annually by 2020.

While Mr. Goldstein is quite correct in stating that a formal plan to achieve this reduction has not yet been articulated by the government he does not address some of the potential reasons why that might be the case.

The main focus of the recent Harper campaign was on maintaining the current economic recovery plan put in place prior to the election. The focus on the economy during this campaign was greater for all political parties. In previous years, and as recently as the 2008 Federal campaigns, the environment held a greater profile in campaign platforms. A potential reason for this shift in focus may be provided by American psychologist Abraham Maslow, who first introduced his theory of a Hierarchy of Needs in 1943.

Maslow's theory proposes that certain basic level needs, such as physical needs, esteem, friendship, love and security must be met before an individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) secondary or higher level needs. In short, when an individual is concerned about or cannot achieve their basic needs they are unable or unwilling to focus outwardly on impacting their surroundings in a meaningful way, or using Maslow's terminology, achieving self actualization.

Protection and maintenance of the environment is a critical issue that impacts all Canadians and Mr. Goldstein is correct that the government would be well served to formulate a plan to achieve its targets sooner rather than later. However, putting in place meaningful measures to reduce GHG emissions requires the collective will of both industry and individuals in Canada. There must be an appetite for regulation that could potentially have a negative impact on the economy.

When an individual is concerned about their job security or the even the availability of a job, it is difficult for them readjust their focus outwardly on how to improve the environment, especially when potential measures to achieve this improvement may have a negative impact on the economy and the individual's job. If an individual's basic needs or the ability to achieve those basic needs are threatened, they are less likely be outwardly focused on issues like the environment.

National environmental policy requires the collective willpower of the Canadian public and in order to achieve the stated goals in respect of reduction of GHG emissions by 2020, the government will need to ensure that the economic realities faced by Canadians allow for a concerted response to environmental regulation. There must be an appetite for environmental change that balances the need for long term reductions in GHG emissions while protecting the Canadian economy.

Given the requirement for economic stability to fuel political willpower in the environmental realm, it is not surprising that Alberta is a leading jurisdiction in the area of GHG reduction regulation. Alberta has boasted one of the strongest economies in Canada in the recent past and that stability has allowed for the development of legislative and regulatory measures aimed at reducing GHG emissions. Such measures include the Climate Change and Emissions Management Act in 2003, the Specified Gas Emitters Regulation in 2007 and the administration of a Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund (the "Fund") under the Climate Change and Emissions Management Fund Administration Regulation in 2009.

The Fund is administered by the Climate Change and Emissions Management (CCEMC) Corporation, an independent organization that operates at arm's-length from government. Expenditures from the Fund are used exclusively for purposes related to reducing emissions of specified gases or improving Alberta's ability to adapt to climate change. Currently, sixteen projects with total funding of approximately $71 million are being funded by the CCEMC. These projects include developing technologies that convert wasted energy to power within the oil and gas industry, experimenting with hybrid solar/fossil fuel energy systems, and the development of new carbon capture methods.

To create the national interest necessary to achieve meaningful environmental regulation, Maslow's theory would indicate that Canadians must become more certain about their economic future. This economic certainty will allow Canadians to focus on other priorities, including following Alberta's lead in regulating GHG emissions. Until Canada's economic concerns are alleviated however, there would appear to little public or political appetite for environmental regulation which might impact industry and potentially threaten an individual's ability to meet their basic needs.

A stronger economy, in both Canada and the US, would go a long way to enabling the possibility of a national and, dare we dream, international regulatory response to GHG emissions.