As Canadians go to the polls, climate change is a bigger national issue than ever before. What has pushed it to the top of the agenda? Do Canada’s emissions make a difference in the grand scheme of things? And what are the different parties’ plans to deal with the climate emergency? Ricochet’s columnist Aaron Saad has got the answers to these questions and more.
1) Why is climate change a bigger issue this election?
Last year, a significant report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change described both the necessity and challenges of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5C, the most ambitious of the Paris Climate Agreement targets. It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of holding temperature rise to 1.5C. At just 1C of warming, the Earth has seen disturbing and dangerous changes. Letting it rise to 2C or beyond will pit millions more against the storms, floods, food shortages, and rising seas of a supercharged climate system.
The report’s most important findings concerned the carbon budget, the total amount of carbon that humanity can still emit before we lose a reasonable chance of meeting that important temperature target. Starting in January 2018, the carbon budget stood at just 580 gigatonnes of CO2 for a better than even chance of keeping temperature rise below 1.5C. At current emission rates (41.5 gigatonnes in 2018), it will be used up by 2031. (The budget for a two-thirds chance — 420 gigatonnes —will be gone by 2028. And each of these budgets could fall by 100 gigatonnes should warming continue to release Arctic methane.) Emissions reductions now have to be on a trajectory steep enough to ensure that by 2030 they’ll have fallen by about 45 per cent compared to 2010 emissions, and fallen to net zero by 2050.
Figures like these lend a renewed urgency to climate-movement politics, including here in Canada. The prominence of Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, the Climate Strike, and even pressure to change the very way we talk about the climate crisis are all part of this. Canadians now show a very high level of concern about climate change.
And then, of course, there was the arrival of the Green New Deal on the political stage.
2) What is this Green New Deal we keep hearing about?
The Green New Deal is a framework for responding to the climate crisis through massive public sector investment in a fairer economy powered by clean energy. It emerges from an understanding that we’ve put off action for so long that the window for easy, incremental approaches has closed and can no longer measure up to what is now required.
This is why the frequent attacks on it for being too costly or unrealistic feel so morally hollow and trapped in a perniciously narrow ideological mindset. In the current context, there’s no alternative that can respond to the climate crisis with anything like the urgency and ambition that morality demands.
The Green New Deal burst onto the political scene when U.S. Democratic senators Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey presented a congressional resolution on it earlier this year. It now forms the basis for the climate plans of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as they vie for Democratic Party presidential nominee.
Properly harnessed, a Green New Deal could offer not just a response to the climate crisis, but something transformative, a pathway to a more just society on the other side of this fateful moment. Two parties in Canada, the NDP and the Greens (discussed below), have drawn on the Green New Deal to create their own climate policies.
3) Isn’t Canada just a small contributor to global emissions though?
In the lead-up to the election, you’ve probably heard a lot about how Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions are a small fraction of the global total, which they are (1.6 per cent in 2015). Often, those who raise this point are implying that it doesn’t much matter if we continue to delay action since our emissions are tiny compared with other countries’; they’ll then point to China, the world’s leading emitter, as evidence.
But collectively, it’s a logic that takes us to hell.
Let’s illustrate using figures for CO2 emissions in 2018. If we in Canada (1.6 per cent of global emissions) and the U.S. (14 per cent) can point to China as a reason for why we can delay, then why can’t those in, say, Australia (1.2), Russia (4.6), Japan (3.4), the U.K. (1.2), and Germany (2.1)? The problem is that those seven countries, each by itself a fraction of the problem, are together responsible for 29.3 per cent of emissions — more than China (27.8). Similarly, officials in China might argue their country shouldn’t have to prioritize its emissions, given that those seven developed countries account for almost half of the world's historical emissions. It’s like we’re all rowing a raft towards a precipice, reasoning that there’s no reason to stop because everyone else is still rowing.
Canada is also the world’s tenth-highest emitter in absolute terms and the third-highest per capita emitter among major industrialized economies.
Furthermore, a country’s emissions are calculated based on the amount of carbon released within its borders. What that excludes is the carbon contained in the fossil fuels it exports to be burned elsewhere.
This accounting quirk obscures the full role Canada is playing in changing the climate. For instance, the 84 megatonnes of CO2 released through digging up and then burning the oil that would pass through the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline every year is roughly equivalent to what came out of the tailpipes of all of Canada’s passenger cars and trucks in 2017.
And so, Canada could have a wider impact on global emissions than that 1.6 per cent by leaving its massive fossil fuel reserves precisely where they need to be: in the ground.
4) But Canada is doing its part in the effort, isn’t it?
The Liberals’ climate target aims to reduce Canada’s emissions by 30 per cent compared to 2005 levels by 2030. That would mean bringing emissions levels down from 716 megatonnes in 2017 to 511 in 2030.
Climate Action Tracker rates Canada’s target as “insufficient,” noting that if every country made similar contributions to the effort, the world would warm by close to 3C. The current government’s policies for achieving that target are even worse, however, consistent with a planet warmed by 4C.
In the literature on the ethics of climate change there are only unkind words to describe this sort of behaviour on the part of rich countries — “shadow solutions,” “slow violence,” and “predatory delay.”
5) Why has carbon pricing become a major issue this election?
More right-leaning parts of the Canadian electorate reacted furiously to the Liberal government’s decision to adopt a national carbon pricing plan. There is no plausible way to address the climate crisis in the time left without a rising price on carbon, and so it was never necessary for any party to validate and represent the reactionary response against it.
And yet, for the past couple of years, parties of the Canadian right — whether the federal Conservatives and People’s Party of Canada, or provincial conservative parties in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and New Brunswick — have been tapping into and fomenting tax resentment as a strategy for staking out political space.
We see that prominently in the current election in the federal Conservatives’ environmental plan:
“The Trudeau Liberal Carbon Tax hurts commuters driving to and from work trying to put food on the table for their families … moms and dads driving their kids to and from hockey practice … seniors who are trying to heat their home during a cold winter … local businesses on Main Streets across our beautiful country.”
There is a lot wrong here.
For one, look at Saskatchewan, Ontario, and New Brunswick, the provinces under conservative premiers that refused to adopt a carbon pricing plan, leading to the feds having to step in with a carbon tax. Most of the revenue generated by the carbon tax is being rebated back to households, and most of those households stand to receive more than they will pay, which is hard to honestly characterize as being “hurt.”
Another issue is that this rhetoric about Canadians being hurt by more expensive fossil fuel prices disguises how those fuels have only ever appeared cheap. Their prices have never reflected the full cost of using them once the consequences on others (what economists call negative externalities) are taken into account. Somebody was always giving a subsidy of sorts to those moms and dads driving their kids to hockey, whether it was the impoverished survivors of the latest supertyphoon paying to rebuild their lives, or even those Canadian moms’ and dads’ own children paying more one day in taxes to adapt Canada’s coastlines to rising seas.
And there is something uglier still. Tapping into and validating the anger against carbon pricing and climate action more generally created conditions in which prominent figures advocating for climate action, particularly if they were women, were subject to abuse; a xenophobic movement like Yellow Vests Canada was able to take root; and a dehumanizing conspiracy theory about foreign-environmentalist interference in Canadian politics could flourish.
Now let’s look at the different parties’ platforms organized from least to most ambitious on climate change.
6) The Conservatives
In using their time as the official opposition to aggressively oppose carbon pricing — the kind of efficient, market-oriented solution generally favoured by right-wing parties — the Conservatives dug themselves into a difficult position.
To make no mention of climate change in the current context, when Canadians in every riding are concerned about it, would be to leave a flank exposed. But to provide a plan that would feasibly address the climate crisis would rankle a Conservative base that party strategists spent so much time mobilizing against even mild carbon pricing.
And so the Conservatives’ “Real Plan to Protect the Environment” exists to shore up that flank by selling a kind of fantasy: that there are still easy, undisruptive responses available and plenty of time left to try them out.
This is why you will not find in it clear targets or timelines that indicate any recognition of how serious of a moment we are in. What you will find instead are a series of vague promises about things like green bonds for clean technology start-ups, a green patent credit to spur clean tech research and development, and a green technology and innovation venture capital fund.
Standing out most prominently from strategies like these, ones that place far too much faith in market actors, are really just two main approaches for quickly addressing large emissions sources.
Here’s how the first one works. For every tonne of CO2 a company emits over 40 kilotonnes in a year, it will be required to invest an unspecified amount of money to promote research, development, and adoption of greener technologies related to its industry. Will these technologies be viable? Will the (again, unspecified) amount paid by companies suffice to get these new innovations off the ground? Will this reduce emissions as much as a rising carbon price would have (let alone put our emissions on track to have fallen by half by 2030)? We are invited to make believe that this plan with no targets or timelines will all somehow work out.
Should any of this be pointed out, however, the Conservative plan does contain a pressure release: to minimize Canada’s contribution to climate change (see above). As Scheer has put it,
"If you shut down Canada's entire economy for a year, China would replace all of our emissions in 21 days. The fact is, Canada will not make a meaningful contribution to fighting climate change by focusing only on our own emissions. We have to look beyond our borders."
And so the second main strategy is to wave around the idea of reducing emissions in other high-emitter countries by, for example, selling Canadian liquid natural gas (LNG) products to China to replace its more carbon-intensive coal. Will China actually use Canadian LNG to replace its coal? And will it then rapidly and abruptly stop using it, which it would have to do if the world is to avoid exhausting the carbon budget? Can all countries also offer to sell less carbon-intensive fuels than coal to China instead of attending to their own emissions? We are invited to imagine this, too, will all work itself out.
All in all, Scheer’s plan is not a plan but a smokescreen, one that never even tries to give a sense as to why it is the best way to incentivize people to rapidly switch away from fossil fuels. The Conservatives’ plan takes a page from a tried and tested Republican strategy to make a lullaby of the words “technology” and “innovation" all while protecting the fossil fuel industry from being phased out.
If given a majority, even for only a single term, the Conservatives will waste the first years of the most important decade we have ever entered.
7) The Liberals
Trudeau’s team won’t be departing from the strategy they’ve been using for the past four years, which was to brand themselves as the party of responsible fossil fuel development. Canada can continue to develop the tar sands, their argument goes, as long as it takes measures to put a price on carbon pollution.
In practice, this has meant the Liberals making big declarations only to then almost immediately undermine them.
One of its first acts was to push for recognition of the 1.5C temperature target in the Paris Climate Agreement. Shortly thereafter, it adopted emission reduction targets too weak to ever meet that target. The Liberals announced their Pan-Canadian Framework on Green Growth and Climate Change in fall of 2016. A few months later, right at the end of what climate scientists were telling us would be the warmest year on record, the Liberals announced the approval of two new tar sands pipelines: the Trans Mountain expansion and Line 3. This year, they passed a motion declaring a climate emergency right before reapproving Trans Mountain, after a ruling by the federal court of appeal placed the project in limbo.
During the leaders’ debate, Trudeau characterized the plan at the heart of this tepid response as being “ambitious and doable.” Green Party leader Elizabeth May was right to point out that what made it doable was precisely its lack of ambition.
On the campaign trail, the Liberals prominently touted two new initiatives. The first is to legislate that Canada will be carbon neutral by 2050, a way of leaving the real ambition to some other government far down the road. The second was an initiative to plant 2 billion trees. Tree planting will have an important role to play in bringing down the now-dangerously high atmospheric concentration of CO2, and its potential should not be wasted like this to offset and justify continued emissions.
All said, the Liberals had an awesome responsibility they failed to meet. Their time in power with a majority government coincided with one of the last moments to take actions in line with our responsibilities to help meet the 1.5C target. It was a moment they squandered with fatal incrementalism.
One other point to recall is that the Liberals made a decision early in their time in power that preserved a major dysfunction in our democracy, one they benefit from. In going back on their campaign promise to replace the first-past-the-post system with an alternative that allows for more proportionate representation, they have made it more difficult to see parties with actually ambitious climate plans hold power proportional to the amount of the popular vote they earn.
8) The NDP
Probably the best indication of the kind of response to climate change we can expect under Jagmeet Singh and the NDP was given in Parliament earlier this year. The party attempted to bring a motion declaring a climate emergency that simultaneously called for an end to fossil-fuel subsidies, a cancellation of the Trans Mountain expansion pipeline, and more ambitious emission reduction targets. (The Liberals, allied with the Conservatives, voted it down and passed another, emptier one.)
The NDP plan taps into the Green New Deal. It foresees 300,000 new jobs created thanks to public investments of $15 billion, which will include $6.5 billion for cleaner, more effective, and affordable public transit, $3.5 billion for a transition to renewable energy, and $2.5 billion for community-level responses, including home retrofitting. The plan also includes a target of net carbon-free electricity in Canada by 2030 and rising financial incentives for working households to purchase zero-emission vehicles.
These are welcome proposals that help change the national conversation for the better about the positive and necessary role that large public investments are going to have to play if the world is to avoid the worst of the climate crisis (not to mention an important improvement on the centrism that the party flirted with during the Mulcair years).
If the NDP plan has one major shortcoming, however, it is in how, despite alluding to “science-based” targets in its plan, its actual emission reduction target for 2030 falls short. Instead of the 45 per cent reductions that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change argues are now necessary, the NDP is aiming to reduce 2030 GHG emissions to 450 megatonnes — only a 35 per cent reduction relative to 2010 (693 megatonnes).
They have indicated that they see this as a starting point only, so we might interpret the NDP strategy as what political theorists call “non-reformist reforms,” early progressive steps that open the way to more far-reaching and just programs. The NDP has a number of candidates who are likely to champion far more ambitious steps if elected. Our Time, a youth- and millennial-driven national campaign advocating for a Green New Deal, has endorsed many of them.
9) The Greens
The Greens have by far the most ambitious climate plan, as described in their “Mission: Possible” document. It is the fullest application of the ideals of a Green New Deal we have seen in the Canadian context, responding to the climate crisis with the same urgency as one would hope a state would respond to an existential crisis.
It lays out a 20-point plan, which includes an inter-party cabinet on climate change to ensure that acting urgently on the crisis is not undermined by changes in government, ensuring that all new cars are electric by 2030, and completing a national retrofit of buildings.
Most impressive is the Greens’ target of 60 per cent emission reduction (relative to 2005 levels) by 2030, which is in line with what the science is demanding.
To achieve this, the Greens’ climate plan, which would see spending of $74 billion in its first year, would be funded by a much more progressive taxation regime that would see an end to fossil fuel subsidies, raise corporate tax rates to be equivalent to those in the U.S., implement a financial transactions tax, and more.
Laudably, the plan also includes a promise to raise Canada’s contributions to the Green Climate Fund, which supports climate responses in developing countries, to $1 billion per year, rising to $4 billion in 2030 while also raising official development assistance to 0.7 per cent of GDP, the target Canada has long failed to meet.
The Greens are not, of course, expected to lead a government. But what they have done is brought the fullest vision so far of what a Green New Deal might look like into the Canadian mainstream.
10) What if a party with a weak climate change plan wins?
The two parties currently leading in the polls will not do enough on climate change. Analysts have been projecting either a Liberal or Conservative minority government. Should we see the latter, the balance of power will sit with the NDP and Greens, which opens a chance for better, if still not great, climate policy. It will therefore be important this election to ensure that Parliament is stacked with members who are strong advocates for a Green New Deal, who, as mentioned above, have been identified by the Our Time campaign. This could also potentially open up space for democratic climate movements to be heard.
Those movements will also be needed in the worst case scenario of a Liberal or Conservative majority to engage in blocking fossil fuel developments and agitating at sub-national levels for more just climate action.
As important as this election is, there will remain much to do after it is done.