Skip to main content

Back in April, the Conservatives sought to do something about their most glaring political handicap: Their lack of a coherent climate policy.

After years spent railing against carbon taxes – the party’s brand was not about what it would do to tackle climate change, but what it wouldn’t do – the Conservatives changed course. This spring, they put forward a set of climate policies, including some modest carbon pricing, with the goal of fulfilling Canada’s initial Paris Agreement pledge of cutting emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.

The Conservatives, in effect, moved closer to the Liberals. The situation didn’t last. Later in April, the Liberals raised their own ambitions, promising to cut emissions by at least 40 per cent by 2030.

Canada’s climate change election: Five issues we should be talking about before the Sept. 20 vote

The new goal became official in July, when Canada filed its updated plan with the United Nations. However, the Liberals’ new target did not include a plan for getting there.

In this election campaign, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has stuck by the lesser emissions-reduction target of 30 per cent. This page has said that his party’s plan, though far more credible than the weak-sauce promises of 2019, is still inadequate.

Existing Liberal policies are clearly superior, but what was missing until recently was a plan for how they would reach the loftier carbon-cutting target laid out in the spring.

In late August, the Liberals outlined their road map for getting to a 40-per-cent cut. It builds on their original 2016 climate plan, last December’s plan for escalating the carbon tax to $170 a tonne by 2030, and pledges from April’s budget.

In the spring, the Conservatives closed some of the carbon gap; the Liberals are once again aiming to put significant daylight between the parties.

Among the Liberals’ most prominent new measures is what is effectively a cap on Canada’s oil and gas emissions. Emissions from the sector have been basically flat since the mid-2010s, so the idea is less radical than it sounds. It does not mean the end of the oil industry; it means that it has to figure out how to produce oil far more cleanly. And the biggest oil sands companies are on board with that: In June, they pledged to reach net zero by 2050.

The first big target is methane emissions; the Liberals want a 75-per-cent reduction by 2030. One-fifth of all industry emissions are “fugitive” methane, basically leaks and such.

Cutting methane is also a priority for U.S. President Joe Biden, and in fact he is the lodestar for many of the Liberals’ latest proposals, as they look to keep Canadian policy marching in lockstep with the United States. The Conservatives broadly favour that approach, though their concern is not so much falling behind the Americans as getting too far ahead.

Other new Liberal offerings echo Mr. Biden’s, including the party’s clean electricity standard, a plan for zero emissions from power by 2035, and the call for half of new vehicles sold in 2030 to be zero-emission.

On electric vehicles, the Liberals propose subsidies of up to $5,000 for purchasers – effectively a tax break for a limited number of buyers with above-average incomes. Better is their proposal to subsidize the building of 50,000 charging stations. Electric charging infrastructure, along with the carbon tax, is a more efficient way to spur EV buying. And it’s no coincidence that the number of charging stations the Liberals want built in Canada jibes with Mr. Biden’s U.S. goals, adjusted for population.

The Liberals’ foundation remains the carbon tax – which Mr. Biden isn’t pushing, because of political opposition. The Conservatives accept carbon pricing, sort of, but they want the price to top out at just $50 a tonne – less than a third of the Liberals’ target. Lower price, lower impact.

That lesser ambition encapsulates the thrust of the Conservative plan. The party is simply less committed to climate policy, and in particular less committed to measures imposing visible costs on voters.

Mr. O’Toole’s party in June unanimously voted against the Liberals’ Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, and Mr. O’Toole’s adherence to a lesser 2030 emissions reduction target could put Canada in non-compliance with the Paris Agreement, as the world heads into a key UN climate meeting in Glasgow six weeks after election day.

The gap between the Liberals and the Conservatives has shrunk. But there’s still no doubt who has the better plan.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.