In the federal elections of 2019 and 2021, it was easy to support climate action. The daily pinch of the carbon tax was soft. In the next federal election, it will cost Canadians a lot more to back strong climate policies.
Carbon pricing started in 2019. For gasoline, the initial cost was four cents a litre. In 2021, it was nine cents a litre. The Liberals narrowly won both elections, and the Conservatives’ lack of climate credibility was cited as a reason they lost.
The next election could be different. In 2024, the carbon tax on gasoline rises to 18 cents a litre. In 2025, it’ll be 21 cents. That’s about $12 on every fill-up of a 60-litre tank. Even with quarterly cheques from Ottawa to households in provinces like Ontario to cover such costs, the ever-higher price won’t go unnoticed like it was in the past.
Putting a price on carbon was, originally, a conservative idea, and the rising cost is exactly how it is supposed to work. A slow and steady squeeze shifts individual decision-making. It’s part of the reason electric vehicles are close to 10 per cent of all new sales, up from 3 per cent four years ago.
But the reality is most Canadians fuel their cars and trucks with gasoline. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has homed in on this, as prices for everything rise. He has, in his run for the party leadership last year and ever since, rejected the need for a robust climate platform. Instead, he supports more fossil fuels (increased natural gas exports), technology (nuclear power and carbon capture for fossil fuel production) and – most of all – scrapping the carbon tax.
Mr. Poilievre’s focus shows the Conservative Party’s continuing disdain for climate action. In 2019, Andrew Scheer’s Conservative platform acknowledged “climate change is real” but didn’t put forward tangible proposals to do something about it. In 2021, Erin O’Toole tried to do more but offered only half-measures.
Mr. Poilievre has circled back to Mr. Scheer territory – and doubled down. “Axe the tax” is his slogan this summer, even as Conservatives have had to postpone events because of raging wildfires, which are made worse by climate change. “The carbon tax does nothing to fight climate change,” Mr. Poilievre said in Sudbury in July. “It has failed.”
This rhetoric ignores that transportation emissions from cars and light trucks in 2021, the latest official figures, were at their lowest since the late 1990s. Less commuting during the pandemic was part of the reason but carbon pricing, still in its early stages, is beginning to take hold. Mr. Poilievre argues Canadians should burn fossil fuels at no direct personal cost.
His other ideas are equally unpromising. Canadian oil and gas production are at record levels. Mr. Poilievre, like Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, wants to further increase fossil fuel production and try to claim credit for lower emissions overseas if natural gas exports displace coal power. It is a convoluted idea that experts say is “implausible.”
He also wants to weaken environmental reviews of new industrial projects by scrapping the federal Impact Assessment Agency. It was created by the Liberals to replace Stephen Harper’s watered-down process, which had led to long delays when courts ruled environmental oversight and Indigenous consultations were inadequate.
Some of Mr. Poilievre’s proposals – federal subsidies for nuclear power and carbon capture – are already happening. The Liberals have spent $1-billion to help build a small reactor in Ontario and plan $12-billion for carbon capture (more than double what Mr. O’Toole proposed in 2021).
What Mr. Poilievre never seems to mention is the vast potential of wind and solar power. The federal Conservative leader’s approach to climate aligns closely with Alberta’s Premier, who this summer shut down approvals in the booming renewables business to favour fossil fuels.
Canada has long made promises, under Conservative and Liberals governments, to slash the greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate heating. That’s started to happen under the current Liberal government. Emissions in the oil and gas industry, for example, peaked eight years ago and have since fallen 7 per cent, even as output rose. It’s the result of strict regulations on methane emissions. Canada is still a long way from its goal to cut all emissions by 40 per cent by 2030, but it’s made more progress than ever before.
Mr. Poilievre would slow that progress, from removing the pillar of carbon pricing to a push to increase output of fossil fuels. He’s betting his pitch will resonate widely enough to win an election. Canadians need to be wary.