That U.S.-Canada Climate Deal Isn't as Good as It Looks

Not as good as it looks.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

When the U.S. and Canada get together to fight climate change, they ought to be able to make a difference. They're not just neighbors, after all, but also among the world's top 10 producers of greenhouse gases. So why did this week's announcement of a joint effort to reduce methane emissions feel so underwhelming?

Because it was. The best hope, for the climate and for both countries, is that it presages a new era of action and cooperation.

Climate Change

Methane emissions from oil and gas production -- which the two countries agreed to cut by as much as 45 percent in a decade -- make up less than 3 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and only about 6 percent for Canada, according to figures compiled by Bloomberg Intelligence. And while both countries set much bigger goals in Paris last year -- the U.S. pledged to cut carbon emissions by 26 percent in a decade; Canada promised a 30 percent reduction in 15 years -- neither one has yet put in place a full set of policies needed to meet them. Even if they did, the reductions would fall far short of what's needed to prevent devastating climate change.

So what could the two countries do to make more of a difference?

In the U.S., the best policy would be to impose a revenue-neutral carbon tax. Yet the current Congress would make this all but impossible. President Barack Obama's workaround is the Clean Power Plan, which moves the energy sector toward low-carbon fuel sources. Ideally, his successor will endorse this strategy and expand on it -- for example, by investing more in nuclear power.

Canada

Canada has even further to go. It has made less progress than the U.S. in cutting emissions, and the declining fortunes of its oil and gas industry have hurt its economy, limiting public appetite for ambitious change. Yet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau enjoys two distinct advantages: Canada's political system allows a government with a majority of seats in Parliament to pass legislation with no support from the opposition, and Canada's most populous provinces have already adopted or announced plans to put a put a price on carbon. The challenge is to combine those initiatives into a national approach that generates meaningful greenhouse-gas reductions.

At their meeting Thursday, Obama and Trudeau renewed their countries' friendly rivalry, identifying shared goals (winning the Stanley Cup) and core differences (the weather in February). They even talked about more important things -- like action on climate change. If their announcement on methane emissions marks the start of a new competition, it’s a contest that will benefit both countries and the world.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.