Climate crisis remains wedge issue on campaign trail

In summer of heat domes and wildfires, Conservatives’ lacklustre climate plan faces a credibility gap

Given the summer of heat domes, massive forest fires and the grim United Nations report on the deepening crisis, you would think that climate change would figure prominently as an election issue in the federal campaign that began August 15.

In the first week, however, the spotlight shone on the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and the ongoing debate about whether the government should require certain employees to be vaccinated as another wave of COVID-19 infections swells. Canada’s role in safeguarding future life on this planet has yet to be broached in a serious way. That is likely to change.

This campaign is bookended by a summer in which the climate emergency became increasingly apparent and the UN climate summit this fall – to be hosted in November by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – in which nations will be expected to make more ambitious commitments to head off global environmental disaster.

Each of the political parties has made sweeping promises for climate change action, and voters need journalists to ask probing questions about their adequacy and credibility.

Journalist Markham Hislop recently commented that the Conservative Party of Canada’s climate change policies as outlined in their platform effectively “close the gap” with the Liberals’ stance on the issue while suggesting that the New Democrats offer a slightly more ambitious plan than the one put forward by the Trudeau government.

The result, he suggested, is less opportunity for wedge politics in which the Conservatives are painted as Neanderthals, as they were under Andrew Scheer during the 2019 campaign.

There is some truth to Hislop’s contention, especially when journalists are preoccupied with other priorities that create more clearly defined wedges. Still, there are yawning differences among the parties with regard to climate ambition. There continue to be deep cleavages in terms of how they would treat the oil and gas sector, which is responsible for 25% of Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Liberals remain vulnerable 

In the past nine months, the Liberal government moved the yardsticks on climate ambition. They announced a tougher 2030 target and commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050, passed legislation that provides some accountability on meeting GHG-reduction targets, and announced plans to raise the carbon price to $170 a tonne by 2030. They also announced more than $15 billion in spending to commercialize and adopt clean technologies that will help Canada meet its commitment and create jobs in the zero-carbon economy.

Still, the Liberals remain as vulnerable as they were in the 2019 election among voters who rank climate change high on their list of priorities and are unhappy with the Trudeau government’s ongoing support for the fossil fuel industry.

In addition to support for the Trans Mountain oil pipeline and export facilities for natural gas, the Liberal government provided some $1.9 billion in subsidies to the industry in 2020, the International Institute for Sustainable Development concluded in a report this year. Activists say that figure dramatically underestimates federal assistance by excluding things like pandemic-related wage subsidies and Bank of Canada bond purchases.

Conservative climate platform falls short 

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, meanwhile, is determined to give his party more credibility on climate change policy, but so far he has had mixed success.

His platform promises $15 billion in spending over several years to support the development and adoption of low-carbon technology. It includes a modest carbon price of $50 per tonne but would allow consumers to keep the proceeds of the levy to spend on a variety of energy-saving devices. The move may appeal to voters, but it would do little, if anything, to encourage less fuel consumption. The Liberal program provides cash payments to Canadians to ease the burden of the levy but is not tied to their actual spending.

When O’Toole released his climate plan last spring, analysts concluded it was a “serious” plan that could, if fully implemented, achieve GHG reductions that would put Canada within reach of our initial target of reducing emissions by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. It’s a target that may have been reasonably laudable when it was initially set by former Conservative PM Stephen Harper in 2015.

However, that target is clearly insufficient to put the country on course for achieving net-zero status by 2050. The Liberals will no doubt remind climate-conscious voters that the Conservatives have not endorsed the net-zero target.

In April, the Liberal government increased its ambition to reduce emissions by between 40 and 45% by 2030 and hit that mid-century, net-zero goal. The New Democrats would set a target of 50% GHG reduction by 2030, while the Green Party of Canada says we need to go further and cut GHGs by 60% in the next decade.

O’Toole has the least ambitious targets, while at the same time, his party lacks credibility to implement the plan for a number of reasons.

Environmental economist Nic Rivers – who was quoted in the platform as lauding its seriousness – notes that many of the proposals are conditional on a number of factors, often requiring identical American action. While the platform has some serious policy proposals, it is easy to be skeptical about whether there will be seriousness in implementing them, Rivers says.

Conservatives remain deeply divided about the importance of GHG reductions. At a spring policy convention, the delegates voted down a resolution that would recognize the reality of climate change and the need for Canada to address it.

The party has oil in its DNA. Conservatives have worked hand-in-glove with the industry’s leaders in recent years to oppose Liberal climate and environmental policies, and their platform calls for continued expansion of oil and natural gas exports.

While Conservatives have endorsed technology to capture carbon emissions in industry, that approach faces serious limitations. Chief executives at Suncor Energy and Cenovus Energy say it would require $75 billion to decarbonize the oil sands, and they want the federal government to pay. It would take additional billions to capture carbon from conventional oil and natural gas production. None of this would address emissions that occur when the oil or natural gas is burned as fuel.

One telling item, as reported last week by The Narwhal’s Fatima Syed: the Conservative platform proposes to criminalize civil disobedience actions that would interfere with oil and gas projects. Conservatives – both federally and in Alberta – have waged war on environmental groups that oppose oil pipelines and liquid natural gas facilities as unsustainable fossil infrastructure. Former PM Stephen Harper and his cabinet minister Joe Oliver targeted environmental groups, including increased audits of their charitable status by Revenue Canada.

Still, the Conservatives are clearly hoping mainstream voters will see a “serious” enough plan to check the climate box as they consider their election options. Liberals, meanwhile, have upped their ambition considerably since 2019 and want to persuade Canadians that theirs is an urgent but pragmatic approach.

Avid climate voters, including young Canadians who rank it as a high priority, will have to decide whether Liberal actions are sufficient or opt for a more ambitious NDP environmental platform that would intrude heavily in areas of provincial jurisdiction. The Green Party has the most ambitious climate agenda and could attract ardent environmentally minded voters. However, internal battles derailed its campaign before the election even started.

In a tight contest, the parties’ ability to manage the climate agenda could be one key to electoral success.

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