Canadian voters concerned about the environment and climate change find themselves presented with a series of dilemmas with the Sept. 20 election upon us.
The environment is often a forgotten issue once politicians are on the campaign trail. But this time, propelled by the catastrophic wildfires in British Columbia this summer and the dire conclusions in the recently released sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, climate change sits at or near the top of the list of issues most important to voters. Yet Justin Trudeau’s early election call may have set the stage for a major setback on climate action.
The election call was met with immediate questions about its rationale, given a minority but relatively stable and productive Parliament, the crisis in Afghanistan and a mounting fourth wave of COVID-19.
Polls are suggesting that after a weak start, Trudeau’s Liberals are only just catching up to Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives.
This is likely due to O’Toole’s largely successful repositioning of his party towards the political centre, including a belated recognition of the reality of climate change and the need for some form of carbon pricing.
But it’s important to look beyond the rebranding and consider what a Conservative win might mean for Canada’s approach to climate change.
Climate action in motion
Progressive voters have been left confused and more than a little annoyed by Trudeau’s election call. The Liberal minority government that resulted from the October 2019 election was dependent on the support of Jagmeet Singh’s NDP and, to a lesser extent, Yves-Francois Blanchet’s Bloc Québécois to survive. The result had been considerable action on climate change and a host of other issues.
The Liberal government, bolstered by a series of court decisions culminating in a March 2021 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that upheld the validity of its backstop carbon pricing system, had implemented the federal system, as promised, in those provinces without adequate carbon pricing systems of their own.
The federal backstop charge on heating and transportation fuels now applies in Ontario, Manitoba, Yukon, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nunavut. An output-based pricing system for industrial emitters is in place in Ontario, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, Yukon, Nunavut and partially in Saskatchewan.
Although the carbon pricing system goes far further than any previous federal government has gone to implement substantive climate policies, it’s not without significant weaknesses.
The burden of the pricing system falls overwhelmingly on individual consumers and households rather than industry. In addition to that unfairness, the effective cost to industrial facilities is far too low to significantly affect their behaviour. What’s more, the standard applied by the federal government to provinces seeking exemptions on the basis of their own systems has been profoundly inconsistent.
Liberal climate commitments
At the same time, the Liberals had committed to moving the carbon price to $170 a tonne by 2030 and revising what’s known as the Nationally Determined Contribution to reduce emissions under the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The Liberals originally committed to a 30 per cent reduction by 2030 and increased it to a 45 per cent reduction. It also adopted a broader net zero emission target for 2050.
A national phaseout of coal-fired electricity has been accelerated and new programs for funding public transit, electric vehicles and energy-efficient renovations for buildings are under way or proposed.
In a reversal from the government’s previous contradictory position of both pursuing reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and the expansion of fossil fuel exports, Trudeau has reaffirmed the commitment implied in the Liberals’ December 2020 climate policy paper to capping and reducing emissions from the fossil fuel sector.
Beyond the environment, the government has also adopted legislation recognizing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and has been moving forward with a national child-care plan.
Low voter turnout?
The risks in this context are enormous. The unpopular and unwelcome election call, in combination with the continuing threat of COVID-19, is a potential recipe for low voter turnout. Under Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, there’s the potential for irregular electoral outcomes.
The core Conservative voter is generally loyal and reliable, giving O’Toole a significant advantage in such a scenario.
Other factors may also favour the Conservatives, including the Bloc Québécois’s potential for growth in Québec. Although the federal Greens have diminished as a factor outside of a few specific ridings, the risks of vote-splitting between the Liberals and NDP exist.
The situation could lead to a Conservative victory and even a majority.
O’Toole has, so far, done a skillful job moving his party from the right to the moderate centre, but major questions still have to be asked what sort of government he would actually lead. Although acknowledging the reality of climate change, his party’s climate policies, particularly on carbon pricing, remain weak shadows of what’s being proposed by the Liberals, NDP, Bloc and Greens.
Conservatives more popular in the West
The Conservatives may see some gains in Ontario and Québec, but they’re still fundamentally grounded in Alberta and Saskatchewan where many voters are hostile to climate action and dependent on resource development industries.
A Conservative cabinet would likely include more than a few holdovers from the Stephen Harper era, which was defined by the abandonment of Canada’s international climate change commitments, particularly the Kyoto Protocol.
A new Conservative federal government would likely draw heavily on Jason Kenney’s government in Alberta, and Doug Ford’s in Ontario, for political staff and advisers.
Both governments have been unwilling to act on climate change and have been criticized for their poor management of the COVID-19 pandemic. They remain overwhelmingly pro-industry, carbon-intense and development-friendly.
This all makes for some very difficult choices for voters concerned about climate change. Many would prefer a Liberal minority government dependent on the NDP, Bloc Québécois and/or Greens for support.
Such outcomes are, however, notoriously difficult to engineer from the perspective of individual voters.
O’Toole’s recent stumble on gun control may significantly weaken his party’s appeal to moderate voters, particularly in Québec and in urban areas.
But Canadians are still faced with an unwanted election, that has placed climate progress at unnecessary risk.
Mark Winfield is a professor of environmental studies at York University.