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The Conservative plan for the climate crisis, marketed to voters by leader Erin O'Toole, has improved since the last election, but Justin Trudeau and the Liberal plan is still better. And it's all in the fine print.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

For John Wooden, every basketball season started with shoes and socks. There’s a right way to put them on, the man who coached UCLA to a record 10 American college titles told his players. “It’s the little details,” he said, “that make the big things come about.”

In 2019, the Conservative Party’s election platform included a climate plan that was, to put it charitably, thin on both details and ambition. But the 2021 platform is a different story. As this page said last Friday, the Conservatives now have a real greenhouse gas reduction plan, particularly when set against what the Tories offered two years ago. However, the Liberal plan is still better – and the margin of superiority is in the details.

Consumer carbon pricing: The Liberal plan is simple – a carbon tax that steadily rises to $170 a tonne by 2030, or about 40 cent a litre on gasoline, from the current $40 a tonne. The bulk of the tax revenue will be returned to Canadian taxpayers (except in provinces that choose to create their own equivalent carbon pricing scheme), such that the less fossil fuel someone uses, the more their rebate will exceed their carbon tax bill. It’s a clear incentive to reduce your fossil fuel use.

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The Conservatives long made religion out of opposition to carbon taxes. But after the Supreme Court ruled in March that Ottawa can legislate in this area, the Conservatives conceded the fight. Sort of. But their take is awful, and basically the opposite of a carbon tax. The party proposes a “low carbon savings account,” a kind of affinity program, like Aeroplan or Air Miles. The more you spend on gasoline and natural gas, the more points you’ll earn. Those points will go into an individual account, and you’ll be able to use them to buy greenish items from an Ottawa-approved list.

It’s a system for incentivizing the consumption of fossil fuels. Which is bonkers. Also, the party also wants its pseudo carbon tax to max out at $50 a tonne. The whole thing is the opposite of credible.

Industrial carbon pricing: The Conservatives propose to mostly maintain the system the Liberals installed, though they may lower the tax level.

Industrial subsidies: Along with carbon pricing, well-designed regulations and subsidies can be important tools for nudging change. The Conservatives’ big ticket is $5-billion of support for carbon capture and storage. The technology could prove to be useful in industries like cement, and both parties are proposing tax breaks. The Liberals in the April budget put up $8-billion for “net zero technologies,” including, for example, up to $420-million for Algoma Steel to more than halve its emissions.

Electric vehicles: The Conservatives would mandate that 30 per cent of new cars and trucks sold in 2030 be zero emission. The Liberals’ goal is for all new vehicles to be zero emission by 2035. But neither target is achievable unless other major countries have strong incentives for automakers.

Fuel standards: Gasoline cars are going to dominate the market, and the roads, for years to come. One way to make progress on emissions is to mandate higher fuel efficiency standards, and cleaner fuels.

The Conservatives in 2019 rejected this, but they are now in support, just like the Liberals.

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Methane: The main component of natural gas is a major culprit in climate heating. In Canada, “fugitive” methane emissions (leaks and otherwise) in oil and gas account for about one-fifth of the sector’s total. Liberal policy aims to cut methane by 40 per cent by 2025, but it’s behind target. The Conservative climate plan does not mention methane emissions in oil and gas.

“Renewable” natural gas: This is a big – and dicey – Conservative platform bet. The idea is to encourage the use of methane from sources such as landfills, and mix it with drilled natural gas for power generation and other uses. The challenge is it’s complicated, expensive, and perpetuates the burning of fossil fuels rather than sets a trajectory to get off them.

Bottom line: The Conservative climate plan is an improvement from two years ago. But even if everything about it were to be executed perfectly, the results would still fall short of the Liberal plan.

The two parties’ approaches are similar in several areas, but the Liberal road map is more ambitious, and its emphasis on carbon pricing makes it the surer bet.

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