Newly-minted Conservative Party of Canada leader Pierre Poilievre has said virtually nothing about climate change on the campaign trail. In fact, the word “climate” doesn’t appear once in the policy proposals on his campaign website, which he’s been slowly unveiling since February.
“The only proposals in there go in the opposite direction,” says University of British Columbia political scientist Kathryn Harrison, who focuses on environmental policy.
At a campaign rally in Calgary — his hometown — Poilievre promised to build pipelines in every direction. "We're going to clear the way for pipelines. I am going to support pipelines south, north, east, west. We will build Canadian pipelines,” he told an audience of thousands packed into a gymnasium in the city’s deep south.
Of course, building more pipelines means more oil and gas extraction, adding more greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, which are directly contributing to global catastrophic warming.
Poilievre’s simplistic solution to the housing affordability crisis also has climate impacts. “We’re going to print less money — build more houses,” he said at the same Calgary rally.
Simply building more single-family homes in the suburbs will only exacerbate urban sprawl, which the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has identified as a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, as well as road congestion and a lack of affordable housing.
A central component of Poilievre’s campaign — like those of his predecessors and competitors — has been to eliminate the Liberal government’s carbon tax. The tax is slated to increase annually until reaching $170 a tonne by 2030, with the goal of pushing Canada’s emissions 30 per cent below 2005’s levels by then.
On March 31, the day before the tax increased to $50 a tonne, Poilievre held a rally in Ottawa vowing to “axe the carbon tax.” His speech emphasized the impact of the tax “at our gas pumps, on your heat and, indirectly, on your food and essentials of your life.”
There's been a vague commitment to invest in carbon capture technology — which would theoretically allow business as usual to continue while reducing emissions — and a promise to export Canada’s renewable energy “to the world.” He also pledged to repeal the Liberal’s ban on tanker traffic off the coast of B.C. Beyond that, there has been little in the way of actual climate policy. This is no doubt by design.
‘Owning the libs’ without offering any alternatives
Poilievre’s history of environmental debate in Parliament has been one of trying to “own the Libs” for the Liberal’s very real history of failing to live up to their climate targets, but without offering any coherent solutions of his own — which will very likely resonate with those who gave him a commanding victory on Saturday.
A February 2007 exchange in Parliament, when he was parliamentary secretary to the President of the Treasury Board, is revealing of Poilievre’s approach.
“[T]he planet does not care about his platitudes,” Poilievre said, referring to Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, in one of his characteristic soundbyte-ready quips. “The planet does not care about his $40 million conferences. The planet does not care if he wears a green scarf, or names his dog after the Japanese city of Kyoto. The planet cares what real action we take to confront the problems before us.”
He criticized the Liberals for their “13 years of talk, 13 years of inaction” on the climate file, reading from environment commissioner reports from 1998 — the year after the Liberals signed the Kyoto Protocol — to 2005, outlining the failure of the Liberals to match their rhetoric with concrete action.
He called Liberal environment critic David McGuinty — brother of the Ontario premier of the day, Dalton McGuinty — the “high priest of hypocrisy on the environment.”
This is all fair enough, but what is the “real action” Poilievre said the Conservatives were taking? He has cited incentives for renewable energy, the “creation of clean fuels such as ethanol,” and the Conservatives’ 2006 Clean Air Act.
What impact did these Conservative policies have on reducing emissions? Not much, according to Harrison. While there was a decrease in emissions in 2008 to 2009, this wasn’t the result of any Harper government policies. It was a result of the financial crisis, Harrison says.
“Canada was not alone in seeing an emissions drop from 2008 to 2009 [and] 2010. That happened around the world,” she said. “What is striking is how quickly emissions roared back in Canada and around the world when the economy recovered.”
The reality is, Canada’s overall emissions continue to rise. We are the fourth largest oil producer in the world, and the 10th largest carbon emitter. Canada’s oil and gas industry is the country’s highest polluting industry, followed by transportation. Emissions from fossil fuel projects are up 20 per cent since 2005.
While the Trudeau Liberals have outsourced responsibility for phasing out Canada’s oil and gas industry to the international market, Harrison says, it has done more than past Liberal and Conservative governments to address the climate crisis through its clean fuel standards, implementing a steadily-increasing carbon tax, and requiring all vehicles sold in Canada to be zero emissions by 2035.
The question is whether it will be enough, but that’s a whole other story.
The Conservatives under Poilievre are openly committed to rolling back whatever progress the present government has made on the climate file, however meager one may find it.
Conservatives’ climate conundrum
Harrison says climate policy has historically been a “particularly tough issue” for Canadian Conservatives, given the support they draw from big business, a disproportionate component of which is the fossil fuel industry.
In March 2021, Conservative delegates voted against adding “climate change is real” to the party’s policy book.
The Portneuf — Jacques — Cartier riding in Quebec, which proposed the addition, framed the need to combat climate change in explicitly conservative terms, calling on “Canadian businesses classified as highly polluting … to take more responsibility” by cutting emissions.
But this wasn’t sufficient to sway the 54 per cent of delegates who voted against the proposal, hours after then-leader Erin O’Toole, expressed “disappointment” and warned party members of the risks of being branded by their opponents as “climate change deniers.”
“We need to boldly reclaim the environment as an area where Conservatives are leaders," he said.
Harrison said O’Toole made strides to making the Conservatives more climate-friendly “with a pretty carefully-crafted climate package,” which embraced some degree of carbon pricing without calling it that, but also wouldn’t have reduced emissions to the same extent as the other parties’ proposals.
It was still an improvement over O’Toole’s immediate predecessor, Andrew Scheer’s, “bogus” climate plan, she added.
Clearly, Poilievre has no interest in even pretending to have a climate plan. And based on O’Toole’s electoral performance, can you really blame him? Just one in 10 Poilievre supporters believe climate change is “an important issue facing Canada,” according to an Angus Reid poll.
“He is appealing to a populist base that is further right-of-center than conservative voters at large. But in so doing, he is putting himself on the record on a variety of policy proposals. And it seems clear that he's not trying for climate concerned voters. He's assuming either he's not going to win those voters or he can win them over with other measures,” Harrison said.