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Climate activists protest outside of the first French leaders' debate on TVA during the federal election campaign in Montreal on Sept. 2.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Canadians are facing a hugely consequential decision about their country’s road toward clean-economy transition, even if they might not know it from how the federal election campaign has played out.

Despite this race being nestled between a summer in which the effects of climate change were inescapable and a United Nations climate conference in November that is supposed to set the course for collectively working to avert catastrophe, the respective plans of Canadian political parties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions rarely got the airing they deserved.

But look at the party platforms, and an unprecedented amount of serious climate policy is on the table in this campaign. In particular, the two parties with the most realistic chance of forming a government have upped their ambition since the previous election, in ways that challenge voters to make choices about the scale and type of change to embrace.

Canada’s 2021 federal election platform guide: compare where the parties stand on climate issues

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are running on the most comprehensive climate agenda ever put forward by a major federal party, with specific promises in nearly every possible regard – from mechanisms to change consumer behaviour, to infrastructure, to spending and regulation for industrial transformation.

Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives aren’t quite at that level of rigour, but have gone from almost dismissing the climate change issue altogether under previous leaders to offering more detailed plans than the NDP and the Green Party.

On some aspects, the Liberals and Tories are now similar. Both propose sales quotas for electric vehicles; strategies for energy retrofits for buildings; billions of dollars for nature-based solutions; investments in adaptation, such as protection against wildfires and floods.

On other fronts, though, they propose very different paths – ones with big implications for our economy, the lives of Canadians and the health of the planet.

The most obvious is the target for cutting national emissions by 2030. Earlier this year, the Liberals committed Canada to a 40-per-cent reduction from 2005 levels. The Tories have stuck with the previous goal of 30 per cent.

The targets aren’t the most solid ground on which to pass judgment, given difficulty meeting past ones. But they’ve become more meaningful since Parliament passed accountability legislation requiring more transparency on progress. And they give an indication of the pace at which the parties would implement policies to drive change.

For voters who don’t think either leading party is ambitious enough, the NDP is promising a 50-per-cent reduction and the Greens want 60 per cent, indicating pressure they might exert in a minority Parliament.

A second area with two roads to choose from, pivotal to how Canada tries to meet the emissions target it lands on, is carbon pricing.

Because the Conservatives no longer oppose that mechanism altogether, there are some false perceptions of consensus. But since the previous election, the Liberals have dramatically scaled up their plans so the carbon price rises steadily from its current $40 per tonne to $170 per tonne by 2030.

The Tories would instead cap the fuel charge paid by households and most businesses at $50 per tonne. They have expressed openness to keeping planned increases to the carbon price for large industrial emitters, for whom there is separate system, but with caveats about moving in line with Canada’s trade partners.

There is confusion around the Tories’ plans for carbon tax revenues, currently returned to taxpayers through rebates, which their party says it would instead put into individualized “green savings accounts.” But it’s clear the Conservatives would keep the carbon price at a level where it would have much less effect on consumer costs than the Liberals’ plan.

That would mean having to do more with other policies to hit even the 30-per-cent target. The Conservatives’ platform gives some indication of what that could involve, including a more stringent federal Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which requires a reduction in carbon intensity of fuels sold domestically. But the Tories would likely need to layer in more to make up for the carbon price’s marginalization.

So climate-conscious voters need to ask themselves whether they prefer to lean more on additional regulations and spending, and trust the Tories to deliver on that, or stick with carbon pricing doing more of the heavy lifting.

A third question those voters need to consider, and perhaps the most daunting one, is where they want Ottawa to try to steer the fossil fuel industry – the biggest reason Canada is one of the world’s top per-capita emitters.

The Conservatives’ position is essentially that while working to reduce domestic oil and gas use, Canada should unabashedly aim to supply global demand as long as it exists. That would include repealing Liberal restrictions such as an oil-tanker ban on British Columbia’s coast, while strongly promoting exports of natural gas as a transitional fuel to replace coal.

The Tories also promise supports to help reduce the fossil fuel industry’s emissions, including $5-billion for carbon capture, but partly as a way to stay internationally competitive.

The Liberals promise to help oil and gas companies reduce their emissions, too, including through a carbon capture tax credit. But since last election, the party has shifted a little toward a (gradual, carefully managed) transition from this industry.

One of the Liberals’ new promises is to swiftly eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, such as through Export Development Canada, other than those for clean technology. Another is a $2-billion diversification fund for oil-reliant provinces. A pledge to set shrinking caps on sectoral emissions would presumably limit oil-sands production increases.

The parties further to the left propose much sharper transitions. The NDP, for instance, appears to be calling for an end to all subsidies, including for clean tech. The Green Party wants Ottawa to do almost everything in its power, including stop leasing federal land, to wind down fossil fuel production.

All these approaches can reasonably be argued in good faith, which doesn’t make it simpler to pick a lane.

It’s true that many Canadians rely on oil and gas for their livelihood, federal efforts to transition away from it could threaten national unity, and at least some of the diminished supply from our oil sands would be made up by global competitors. It’s also true Canada won’t meet its international climate obligations without reckoning with the single largest contributor to its emissions, and that in the long run, Ottawa will do no favour to regions that depend on fossil fuels if it ignores the coming global shift away from their product.

But for voters trying to navigate that course, there are at least serious choices available – as with overall climate ambition, carbon pricing and more granular policy planks.

As they weigh those options, there is one other question those voters should ask themselves: Who can be trusted to follow through on all this?

Any one of multiple strategies each party is proposing – for vehicles, buildings, industrial decarbonization, clean tech and more – could bog down the next government. To meet targets, it will have to do all of them. So it’s worth considering who has the conviction and competence to pull that off.

There’s no sure way of knowing the right call. But there has never been a more important time to make a choice on who leads Canada’s climate transition, and there has never been more to choose from.

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