Even as their party appears to be abandoning its short-lived support for carbon pricing, a small group of high-profile Conservatives is launching an effort to get their next leader to take climate policy seriously.
Conservatives for Clean Growth, launched on Thursday morning, bills itself as an organization of long-term “activists, advisors and members” who believe “it’s critical for the Conservative Party of Canada to have a credible plan on the environment.”
Co-chaired by former federal minister Lisa Raitt and former Alberta provincial minister Jim Dinning, with veteran policy adviser Ken Boessenkool as its executive director, the new organization is pledging to work with any candidate running to replace Erin O’Toole as leader, if they are interested in developing “a credible climate, energy and economic plan.”
It’s an effort that should be welcomed by anyone concerned that the Tories – by far the likeliest party to form government whenever Canadians turn from Justin Trudeau’s Liberals – might be set to turn their backs on the country’s emissions-reduction goals, and on efforts to compete economically in a decarbonizing world.
But the nascent organization may not have an easy time convincing party members themselves to embrace climate ambition. Mr. O’Toole’s efforts in that regard – including a proposed variation on the national carbon price introduced by the Liberals – contributed to unhappiness in the Tory caucus, leading to his ouster from the party’s leadership last week.
Some signs of the challenges Conservatives for Clean Growth will face were evident in its launch.
No names other than Ms. Raitt’s, Mr. Dinning’s and Mr. Boessenkool’s were announced – a possible sign that other Conservatives are wary of the same sort of backlash Mr. O’Toole faced. Mr. Boessenkool said on Thursday that “we will be sharing more names in the coming days.”
Meanwhile, the group’s vision, as presented on its website, is brief and cautious. It calls for a plan to reach net-zero emissions, which the current federal government has pledged to do by 2050, but does not reference Ottawa’s nearer-term commitment to a 40-per-cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030.
On policy, the organization broadly calls for tools “such as pricing industrial emissions, exporting cleaner energy, smart regulations, and Canadian ingenuity.” There is no mention of a consumer-facing carbon price, of the sort Mr. O’Toole ran on, despite Mr. Boessenkool having previously advocated for that policy.
Mr. Boessenkool said the group “did not want to be too prescriptive” on means of reducing emissions, and hinted at some differences of opinion among its founding members. “Some of us have our preferred ways, others have theirs,” he said.
“What matters is that a plan is credible so we can take advantage of the economic and technological opportunities presented by net zero.”
That economic emphasis appears to be central to the group’s messaging, and to its hopes of engaging Conservatives, who may be more open to arguments about Canada’s competitiveness than about its obligation to the planet.
Ms. Raitt acknowledged that some members of her party “will not want to recognize that climate is an issue.” But as other countries make net-zero commitments and decarbonization investments to get there, she’s hoping all concerned will “recognize that this is where the world is going and we need to go there as well.”
She said she was motivated to join the effort partly by recent discussion, in the policy world, about Canada’s need to develop strategy around critical minerals and other components of electric-vehicle supply chains. “I see a lot of policy discussion but not a lot of implementation,” she said. She argued that Conservatives should be well positioned to advocate for policies aimed at attracting that sort of investment, such as regulatory reforms.
Some of the other economic opportunities toward which Conservatives for Clean Growth is pointing may give pause to some environmental groups otherwise inclined to be excited by the group’s launch. The reference to “exporting cleaner energy” seemingly relates at least partly to efforts to sell natural gas as a transitional fuel, and to make Canadian oil production more palatable through investments in technologies such as carbon capture, storage and utilization – a controversial subject among climate advocates.
But at the moment, getting a focus on any sort of climate policy into the Conservative leadership race (other than opposition to emissions-reduction measures introduced by the Liberals) might be an accomplishment.
Many party members who will make up the base of voters in the leadership contest resisted Mr. O’Toole’s efforts to make the Tories greener, which he did not clearly signal he would do when he ran for leader. At a policy convention before the last election, a slim majority of delegates voted against a resolution that would have added an edict to the Conservatives’ policy book that they “recognize that climate change is real” and declare the party “ready to act.”
The first leadership candidate into the race to replace Mr. O’Toole, Pierre Poilievre, has been skeptical of public policy efforts aimed at reducing fossil fuel usage. Beyond opposing carbon pricing, he has cast doubt on measures such as financial supports for transitioning to electric vehicles.
If the group can’t convince prospective front-runners such as Mr. Poilievre to advocate for strong climate measures, its members will at least be hoping to contribute to climate-friendly candidates getting enough of the vote to show that sort of policy has a strong constituency in the party.
That may require organizational heft far beyond what Conservatives for Clean Growth currently boasts, since leadership contests largely involve signing up new party members and directly reaching out to existing ones.
But for now, the launch may at least serve as a reminder that some prominent Conservatives who are veterans of the party’s past victories see climate seriousness as being necessary for future successes.
If the message that it’s about economic advantage lands, the group might help convince others that it’s safe for them to take these positions within their party, too.
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