Canada, as has been pointed out on this blog before, does not have the greatest record when it comes to climate change — or the environment generally, for that matter. Dramatically increasing production of tar-sands oil has meant that Canada, while signing the Kyoto Accord, actually has a worse record on CO2 emissions (relatively speaking) than the U.S., which famously didn’t sign.

Worse than the Americans! Well, we can’t have that. There’s nothing we Canadians love more than our high horses. Today, Liberal Party leader Stéphane Dion — elected leader of his party with a promise to clean up Canada’s act — made his proposal to restore our smugness public.

A bit of wonky analysis, plus a bit of background for Canadian political neophytes, follows.

The proposal by the Liberals today is actually pretty audacious, as far as Canadian politics are concerned. The core is a cap-and-trade system (which won’t make some people here happy, I realize) backed up with a $20/tonne fine for CO2 emissions above the cap. Call it a cap/trade/tax hybrid, I guess. The level of the cap is Canada’s Kyoto target (1990 levels – 6 percent.) The audacious part is that the cap comes in to place on January 1st, 2008. While the cap doesn’t include all emissions, it does apply to the largest emitters in Canada — responsible for about 50 percent of Canada’s total CO2 output.

Polluters will also be rewarded for investments in emission reductions to the tune of $10/tonne, but with diminishing credit over time — incentive to act quickly, it’s hoped.

So in less than nine months, Canada’s biggest polluters would have to start paying substantially because there’s no way they’ll make it in under the cap. The monies raised will go in to a clean development fund to reduce the emissions further.

One thing addressed specifically in the White Paper is the issue of only paying people for incremental carbon credits — that is, reductions in emissions that wouldn’t have happened anyway without the money. This has been a major flaw with other carbon offset and credit programs, and it’s good to see the Liberals address the issue head-on.

There’s a bit more to the plan, but mostly it has to do with the quirks of Canadian federalism. For example, no more than 20 percent of the money raised through the carbon tax can cross a provincial border. This is basically about a rather old charge in Canadian politics — one that’s not without merit, I hasten to add — that the western provinces have historically been made to pay for the Central, more industrial provinces’ wealth. The Liberals are trying to bring in a Green Plan without offending oil-rich, coal-fired Alberta, in short, but personally I don’t think they’ll succeed. Manufacturing (concentrated in Ontario and Quebec) will only have to reduce emissions by 11 percent, while gas and oil (concentrated in Alberta) will have to reduce emissions by 46 percent. This is based on sound numbers, but I don’t expect that to help the Liberals in Alberta.

So what to think? I expect some debate in comments, but as far as this Canadian is concerned, Operation Restore Smug is a qualified success. It’s damning with faint praise to say that this vastly exceeds the Liberal record of 1993-2006, but it’s also a start. I think it’s also fair to say that it exceeds anything proposed by the Bush administration or the Democratic Congress yet. There’s not much in here about renewable energy, but there’s plenty about conservation and efficiency — funded by the CO2 fines.

Of course, all of this is irrelevant so far. The Liberals are only the loyal opposition, not the government, and thus there will be no chance to make this plan in to law until the next election.

Which brings me to the news coming next week: The Conservative government will introduce a budget next week, and the big question is whether the opposition parties will support it or not. If not, the government will fall and an election will be held. This will be the third election since 2004, and the Liberals’ chance to reclaim the government.

So watch this space, I guess.

Appendix: The GGCD & Timeline
The Great Green Canadian Debate of 2006-2007 (so far) has more or less gone like this:

Liberals: "Stephen Harper is just like George W. Bush, and doesn’t care about the planet. As recently as 2002, he was publicly proclaiming his skepticism on climate change. He still sometimes slips up and sounds like Michael Crichton."

Conservatives: "The Liberals cared so much about the environment for the 13 years of their tenure, Canada’s emissions are now 30 percent beyond our Kyoto goals."

Various smaller parties: "You both suck. People of Canada: Vote for us!"

Remix, repeat ad nauseam, and you’ve basically got the environmental "debate" in Canada for the last year or so. (Yes, these are gross caricatures. No, not as satirical as you might think.)

Timeline:

January 2006: Conservatives elected in a weak minority government, replacing weak Liberal minority government of Paul Martin. New PM Harper proceeds to dismantle key Liberal programs meant to deal with climate change. (He will later restore some of the funding after 6 months or so of intense criticism.)

Summer 2006: Conservatives pilloried over lack of commitment to climate change, while the Liberals search for new leader. Leadership contest (kind of like U.S. primary season, but without an election impending) features the environment a bit, but Dion is the only candidate who makes it a priority.

December 2006: Dion elected Liberal leader. Depending on who you ask, he’s either the choice to lead the Liberals’ commitment to a new green agenda, or the last man standing from a pretty bloody leadership campaign.

January 2007: Dion’s first major policy speech deals heavily with the environment, and Dion endorses "clean" coal. (Boo, hiss.)

February 2007: Conservatives release attack ads to discredit Dion’s green credibility, using debate footage from the leadership campaign — competitor (and runner-up) Michael Ignatieff saying "Stéphane, we didn’t get it done" features prominently.

Today: Dion releases the new White Paper.