While the US Democratic candidate primary along with the President’s ongoing impeachment are dominating news cycles, Canada is going to the polls. For Americans who are interested but unclear on Canadian politics, I recently published The Snarky Guide for Americans to the Canadian Election over on Medium. I won’t reiterate most of that piece, but it’s a useful explainer on how Canadians manage to have an entire federal election in six weeks without an Electoral College.
Suffice it to say that it’s likely that Justin Trudeau, the current Prime Minister, will be returning as leader of Canada. But this is more about the story of climate change in Canada and how it’s shaping this election cycle.
Back in 2015, when Trudeau was new and shiny, he and his newly minted Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna went to the COP21 meeting in Paris. They participated in gathering the necessary agreement on the Paris Accord target of 2 degrees Celsius limit to warming, and also the 1.5 degree aspirational target. Excellent work on both their parts, and the work he did in Canada with Premiere Notley of Alberta and Premiere Wynne of Ontario to broker a deal for a carbon tax in exchange for removal of one barrier to the pipeline was a key part of that.
That carbon tax has been implemented now, going live in January of 2019. Another pledge that Trudeau’s administration has not succeeded at as well is ending fossil fuel subsidies. I wrote about that in CleanTechnica earlier this year in this piece: Canada Subsidizes Fossil Fuels, Can’t Talk Climate Change In Election Year. While Canada has made more progress than the notable laggard to its south, unwinding decades of lobbying and entwined regulatory and industry groups is a hard problem.
However, a carbon tax and fossil fuel subsidies were only two of many important subjects on the table in the 2015 election. The Liberal campaign had a tremendous number of transformative campaign promises, and they’ve done a very credible job of keeping them according to independent analysis. I had written about the interim track record on promises and how they stacked up against the previous Canadian administration and other western democracies last year, and was not surprised that they did so well on meeting their pledges with this years scorecard. A bunch of Canadians were really hoping for proportional representation, despite it continuing to lose referendums in BC, and the Liberals abandoned that promise.
In 2018, the UN IPCC released the first of its three reports on what that 1.5 degree limit meant. And it was pretty horrific reading. Basically, if we don’t stick to 1.5, just the extra half degree to 2 degrees has very large impacts: lots more droughts, lots more flooding, lots more sea level rise over a longer duration. And they were clear about what was necessary to hit the 1.5 degree limit. By 2030, we had to reduce CO2 emissions about 55%.
That made a lot of people sit up and take notice, understandably. And the implementation of the carbon tax in Canada has had understandable if unfortunate side effects as well. The combination is making climate change a central theme of this year’s election.
For the side effects of the carbon tax, it’s worth casting our eyes to the other Commonwealth nation that used to have one, Australia. That country saw a sensible carbon tax brought in by a Labor government. The conservative coalition saw an opportunity to create a political wedge, and as in Canada and the US, is supported much more strongly by the fossil fuel industry as major donors. They campaigned hard on eliminating the carbon tax and lied about its effectiveness. And they won. The Australian carbon tax had been successfully doing exactly what it was designed to do, changing corporate and personal behavior away from fossil fuels and lowering Australia’s GHG emissions. It peaked at $23 AUD, a very low level, before being axed for political convenience and venal ends.
That win apparently is something that conservative parties at all levels in Canada took to heart. Prior to this federal election, the carbon tax was used in Ontario and Alberta election campaigns by the Conservative parties in those provinces. Other conservative Premieres in other provinces didn’t like it either. A loose coalition of regressives formed and are tackling the legality of the tax in court, despite pretty much every legal expert making it clear that they will lose and lose badly as it proceeds before judges. Tens of millions of Canadian taxpayer dollars are being spent on this wasteful exercise against a very conservative economic approach to climate change.
Pricing negative externalities under a Pigovian tax and returning the revenue to tax payers so that they don’t suffer any economic hardship, but simply change their behavior is a fundamentally conservative economic policy. That’s why it’s the basis of two separate Republican-created or Republican-supported climate approaches in the United States, the Climate Solutions Caucus and the Climate Leadership Council.
And the Canadian Conservative Party under Andrew Scheer has killing the carbon tax as its first pledge on the campaign platform site. That’s one of the many reasons it’s difficult to consider the current Canadian Conservatives to be conservative in any real sense. They are currently using Conservative branding for a reactionary party, just as the Republicans stopped being actually conservative a few years ago. The Canadian Conservatives aren’t as far off of empirical reality as the US Republicans are at present, but they are still a long way off.
Meanwhile, the Liberals have made climate action the literal center piece of their campaign.
The actions in their first mandate were positive steps, but now they are treating the climate issue with much more of the seriousness it is due. Greta Thunberg has something to do with that, of course. She met with Trudeau just as she has met with and spoken to global leaders many times in the past months. She told him in no uncertain terms that he has to do more. She’s right, and she’s far from alone in holding that sentiment. Poll after poll in Canada finds that the vast majority of Canadians accept the science of climate change, 75% are worried about it and a very large plurality consider it an emergency.
There is political will to act, although unsurprisingly, individual Canadians are only willing to spend $200 to $400 more per year to deal with it, the inevitable balancing act.
The Liberals are listening. The Conservatives are listening to their fossil fuel base in Alberta.
And so the Liberals have made additional commitments. They are committing to Canada being a zero emission economy by 2050, and to exceeding the 30% reduction target for 2030. They are committing to planting 2 billion trees, a nice gesture but a very small number when tiny New Zealand has committed to billion and the need is a trillion as I laid out in this article earlier in the year: Planting A Trillion Trees Is A Nice Thought, But An Unlikely Reality. They are committing to funding biofuels, one of the pathways that’s necessary for short-term displacement of diesel and long-term displacement of shipping and aviation fuels. They are promising to fund cleaner infrastructure.
They are committing to protecting 25% of Canada’s land and 25% of Canada’s oceans by 2025, while the Scheer Conservatives are promising to eliminate land and water protections that hinder an oil pipeline that they couldn’t build in the decade they were the party in power. The Liberals have committed to investing in rural indigenous communities currently powered by diesel to shift them substantially to renewables. They are committing to energy efficiency measures and money for existing homes and commercial buildings. They are committing billions to new public transit, which will include electrification funding such as their $78 million investment in electrifying BC’s buses outside of the Lower Mainland. They are committing to electric vehicle rebates and 5,000 charging stations. They are committing to help communities and homeowners adapt to the new climate reality of flooding and fire.
And back to the pipeline. The Liberals ended up buying it and are working to sell it to a group including many First Nations bands, something aligned with the goal of ensuring that Canada’s indigenous people share in the wealth generated from the land. If the pipeline is twinned, another $500 million a year in federal revenue would be realized. They’ve committed to using that revenue solely for clean energy projects.
They are currently missing investments in decarbonizing industry and shifting to low-tillage agricultural practices. Their plan doesn’t mention HVDC transmission or pumped hydro storage yet. They don’t explicitly target coal and gas generation outside of ending subsidies. They don’t mention HFCs and the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, but they already ratified that in 2017, while the USA has still not ratified it. But the list of solutions is clear, as I laid out recently in this piece The Short List Of Climate Actions That Will Work and they are going to assemble a team of experts to guide them. It’s not rocket science and they have good coverage already. They’ll get there.
But only if the people of Canada don’t let the Conservatives regain power in the election on October 21st. Just as Trump found a way to victory with his ugly populist approaches and a lot of help in 2016, there is still a reasonable chance per Canada’s equivalent to Nate Silver’s 538, P.J. Fournier’s 338Canada, that the Conservatives could win. It happened in Ontario when the citizens voted out a good government for the Doug Ford Conservative government that has ripped up 758 renewables contracts, killed efficiency programs, and is pending $30 million to fight the carbon tax. It happened in Alberta when the citizens threw out a good government for one that promised them a return to the 1990s, as if Kenney was King Canute, but without the insights.
Canada has been a global leader for decades. We are part of the G7 and G20. Canada and the world can’t afford a return to Conservative leadership until they join us in this century.