Heading into the 2019 election campaign, the four main parties aren’t disputing the scientific consensus that human beings are responsible for climate change or that a warming planet will result in damaging impacts on the global population and other species. But the Liberals, Conservatives, New Democrats and Greens differ widely on how deeply Canada needs to cut greenhouse-gas emissions (GHGs), how those emissions should be cut and at what cost.
What the science says
The large-scale global release of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere because of industrialization has caused Earth’s average temperature to rise over the past century.
In a 2018 report, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the leading advisory body on the issue – emphasized that climate change is already happening and warned about its serious health and economic impacts.
Nearly every country in the world is a party to the Paris Agreement, in which the global community agreed to limit the rise in temperatures to below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, with the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees.
The IPCC report concluded that even that 0.5-degree difference in warming would mean significantly worse global and regional climate impacts.
For example, it said limiting warming to 1.5 degrees could result in 420 million fewer people being exposed to severe heatwaves; result in the saving of at least some of the world’s coral reefs, a key ecosystem supporting global fisheries; and cut in half the number of animals and plants that would lose habitats and risk extinction.
The report, authored by 90 scientists, said countries have a chance of limiting the average increase in temperatures to 1.5 degrees but right now the world is on a trajectory to blow right past those targets.
It shows that at the current rate, the world would see between 2.7 and 3.4 degrees of warming, which would result in catastrophic impacts on human society and the broader environment.
The report found that global greenhouse-gas emissions need to be cut by close to half and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
For Canada’s targets, the report’s findings suggest the country would have to cut emissions by about 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 in order to do its part to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, said Andrew Leach, an environmental economist at the University of Alberta.
The issue, illustrated in charts
Projected annual temperature
change for Canada
For late century, 2081-2100
Projections are based on the Coupled Model Intercom-
parison Project (CMIP) multi-model ensemble. Changes
are relative to the 1986–2005 period.
JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:
Canada in a Changing Climate: Advancing
our Knowledge for Action
Projected annual temperature
change for Canada
For late century, 2081-2100
Projections are based on the Coupled Model Intercomparison
Project (CMIP) multi-model ensemble. Changes are relative to the
JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: Canada
in a Changing Climate: Advancing our Knowledge
Projected annual temperature change for Canada
For late century, 2081-2100
Projections are based on the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP) multi-model ensemble.
Changes are relative to the 1986–2005 period.
JOHN SOPINSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: Canada in a Changing
Climate: Advancing our Knowledge for Action
The political context
Canada was a signatory to the Kyoto Accord in 1997, but successive Liberal and Conservative governments failed to implement measures to meet its targets.
In 2011, then-prime minister Stephen Harper pulled out of the international treaty, saying Canada was clearly unable to meet its commitments.
In advance of the Paris climate summit in 2015, Mr. Harper pledged that Canada would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, which took office in October 2015, reaffirmed the targets set under Mr. Harper at the Paris summit that December.
The deal hammered out in the French capital committed developed countries, such as Canada, to cut their GHG emissions by 80 per cent below 2005 levels by 2050 and reach net-zero emissions in the second half of the century.
The centerpiece of Mr. Trudeau’s plan to reduce emissions is a carbon-price regime, complemented with an array of spending and regulatory measures.
The goal of the carbon price is to make activities that emit a lot of greenhouse gases more expensive, thereby giving companies and individuals an incentive to reduce those activities and reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that they are responsible for.
The Liberal plan set a federal carbon tax that would be imposed on provinces that do not have their own levy or do not meet federal standards. Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick are currently covered by the federal levy, and are soon to be joined by Alberta.
The political battles, however, are heightened by the regional nature of Canada’s resource economy. Alberta and Saskatchewan are heavily dependent on coal for their electricity and on oil and gas production as their economic engines. Parties that promise aggressive actions to rein in emissions are often accused of threatening economic prosperity, while they argue a sound economy depends on sustainable environmental practices.
Heading into the election campaign, the Liberals are defending their climate-change policies against those on the right who say the government is imposing too much of a cost burden, and those on the left who argue it is doing too little to ensure Canada does its part in limiting the increase in average global temperatures to 1.5-degrees above preindustrial levels.
The Conservatives hope to make their opposition to the carbon tax a ballot-box question, while the New Democrats and Greens aim to attract the support of voters − especially younger Canadians − who see climate change as the defining issue of our age.
Even though Canada sits among the top 10 greenhouse-gas-emitting countries and is one of the largest per capita emitters, it accounts for only 1.6 per cent of global emissions. The success of its efforts in reining in climate change will depend on what the rest of the world is doing.
During the election campaign, the Liberals said if they are re-elected they would set the goal of net-zero emissions in Canada by 2050. The party has yet to show the full picture of how it would reach that goal, however in the third week of the election campaign Mr. Trudeau has been rolling out policies that would reduce emissions by encouraging growth in the clean-tech sector and interest-free loans for home and building retrofits.
The Liberals also have four years of climate policy behind them which they say puts them three quarters of the way to reaching the emissions reduction target set for 2030. Immediately after winning the 2015 election, Mr. Trudeau sought to differentiate his government from Mr. Harper’s on climate-change policy.
In December, 2016, Mr. Trudeau concluded a sweeping agreement with provinces and territories (minus Saskatchewan) that laid down a road map for achieving the Paris targets and promised joint action. The federal government has embarked on enacting some 50 measures − from the carbon tax, to support for electric vehicles, to regulations on the carbon content in fuels, to investments in public transit and clean technology. The government has also set a target that by 2030, 30 per cent of light-duty vehicles sold will be zero emissions vehicles .
The carbon tax is at the centre of the Liberal plan, and is a lightning rod for federal and provincial conservatives. It kicked in at $20 a tonne − roughly 4.3 cents per litre at the gas pump − on April 1, and rises $10 each year to $50 a tonne in 2022.
It applies to consumers − who get rebates through the tax system to offset the cost impact − as well as to businesses. Large industries pay the levy on only a small percentage of their emissions − from 5 per cent to 20 per cent depending on the sector − in order to protect business competitiveness.
The carbon tax system put in place by the Liberals has a carrot and stick approach. On the one hand, the price on carbon acts as an incentive for companies and individuals to find a way to reduce their carbon footprint in order to avoid the higher costs associated with a carbon tax. On the other hand, the rebate that is given to consumers acts both to cover the costs for people who have no other option but to drive their car and has the added benefit of rewarding consumers who reduce their footprint because they get the same rebate no matter how much pollution they create.
If the Liberals are re-elected to government, they say they will consult with provinces, territories and other interest groups to determine the trajectory of the tax after 2022. That commitment was first made when the government released its climate-change plan in 2016. However, this past spring, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said there was no plan to raise the carbon price post-2022. In August, she reverted back to saying any changes to the price would be made in consultation with provinces and territories.
A new Liberal government would also have to finalize the proposed Clean Fuel Standard, which would require energy companies to reduce the overall GHG content of the fuels they sell by mixing in biofuels and other renewable sources, making their processing operations more energy efficient and gaining credits by financing other emission-reduction projects.
The Liberals maintain that they are on track to reach Canada’s 2030 targets, but the government’s own numbers show their plan will fall short. According to Environment and Climate Change Canada, there is a 79-megatonne shortfall that remains unaddressed. The Liberals counter that the gap will be covered by “unmodelled measures and future reductions,” including current investments in public transit and new technology and “future federal, provincial and territorial measures.”
However, UBC Professor Kathryn Harrison said “the gaps, or the missing parts, of the Liberal plan are how to fill the shortfall" and she noted that the hole has “almost doubled” since the Liberal’s climate change plan was announced in 2016. In a followup interview after the Liberals announced the new 2050 target, Prof. Harrison said while the target sparks an “important” conversation about phasing out fossil fuel in Canada, it’s “disconcerting” that there are no clear measures to meet the 2030 target.
An advisory group − co-chaired by Montreal environmentalist and now Liberal candidate Stephen Guilbeault − recommended the government adopt regulatory mandates on zero-emission vehicles to ensure Canada meets its target. On Sept. 24, Mr. Trudeau was asked why the Liberals haven’t acted on the recommendations, he didn’t answer the question but said more measures would be unveiled in the remainder of the campaign.
The Liberals will also have to outline how they will manage the balance between cutting emissions on the one hand and resource development on the other. Ms. McKenna says the economy and environment go together, but partisans on the left in the highly polarized national debate often see the Liberals as leaning too heavily toward the other side. Detractors point to the government’s decision to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion for $4.5-billion as proof of the imbalance. The pipeline will allow for much more oil-sands development – a key contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions – even as Canada touts the need to cut emissions. The Liberals have ensured Alberta has a cap on total emissions from the oil sands for 2030 of 100 megatonnes per year. Currently the oil sands emit approximately 70 megatonnes annually.
In June, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer released his party’s environmental platform that outlines the party’s plan for measures to address climate change. The centrepiece of the plan is what it won’t include: Mr. Scheer vows to repeal the federal carbon tax as well as the planned Clean Fuel Standard, which would force fuel providers to lower the GHG emissions associated with their products.
The Conservative Leader noted that it was his predecessor, Mr. Harper, who first set Canada’s current emissions targets. His plan would give the country the “best chance” to meet those targets, he said, while stopping short of actually committing to that goal.
Rather than taxes and regulations, the Conservative Party’s climate platform relies on tax incentives and spending to support the development of technology that would allow consumers and industry to improve their energy efficiency and reduce the carbon content of the fuels industry produces. It promotes carbon capture and storage − which has been adopted by two oil refineries in Alberta and a coal-fired generating station in Saskatchewan − as the kind of technology that Canada can not only deploy at home but sell to the rest of the world.
While the Conservatives pledge to eliminate the federal carbon tax as it applies to both consumers and large industrial polluters, they would replace it with “emission standards” for major industries that would require them to reduce GHGs to a prescribed limit. The platform gives no indication where those limits would be set, how they will be enforced or how much of a penalty companies would face if they exceed them. Instead, it says companies would be required to invest a set amount per tonne into technology that would help them lower their emissions.
The Tories also propose a two-year program of tax incentives for homeowners to undertake energy retrofits in order to cut their energy consumption and related GHG emissions. A household could save up to $3,800 annually if they spend $20,000 on energy-saving renovations. The Conservatives also pledge a voluntary building standard that they say would provide incentives for builders to construct more energy-efficient homes.
The party is also promising to negotiate agreements that would allow Canada to claim credit for the sale of lower-carbon fuels to countries that would otherwise be relying on coal or other high-emitting sources. The 2015 Paris climate accord contains a provision − Article VI − that facilitates international co-operation by allowing the transfer of credits for emission reductions between countries. The Conservatives say the international sale of liquefied natural gas would more than offset the increased emissions in Canada by, for example, lowering the reliance on coal in China.
The Conservative Party approaches climate-change policy with two baselines that separate it from the other parties: it staunchly supports the oil and gas sector and its continued expansion and does not believe that policies tackling climate change should impact household pocket books. The policy options left to the Tories then are limited and several experts have concluded that they will fall far short of Canada’s commitment.
Simon Fraser University’s Mark Jaccard, who sits on the UN’s advisory panel on climate change, modelled the impact of the plan and said it would lead to increased greenhouse-gas emissions between 2020 and 2030.
The Conservatives’ plan to cap emissions for large emitters and charge those who blow past their limits is in effect a carbon tax, but because there is no explanation of what the cap is or what the tab would be for companies that break it, Prof. Jaccard said its impossible to know the effect it will have.
The plan focuses on international efforts to cut emissions and suggests that the global problem requires a global solution. However, there is no global enforcement for emissions reductions. In recognition of countries’ sovereignty, the United Nations relies on a collection of national commitments to meet the target of limiting average global temperature increases to below 2 degrees, and with a goal of 1.5 degrees.
The Conservatives would rely on the Paris Accord’s Article VI to claim credit for the sale of lower-carbon energy sources, such as LNG, to replace coal in the global electricity sector. The article might also be applied to the sale of technology needed to reduce emissions overseas, they say.
However, international negotiators have been unable to agree on the rules for how Article VI would operate. At the very least, two countries would have to agree on the transfer of credits, and it remains unclear how those credits would be generated.
However, the idea has some merit, according to Jennifer Winter, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary. Ms. Winter said paying to cut emissions in countries where it is cheaper to do so is a “reasonable” approach, though it would send money out of the country.
Meanwhile, the Conservative reliance on technological solutions to cutting emissions at home would be hobbled by the lack of a carbon price, says the Ecofiscal Commission, a group of prominent economists who advocate for market-based approaches. The point of a carbon levy is to provide incentives for individuals and companies to find the most cost-efficient way to reduce their emissions.
The NDP says it would ramp up Canada’s plans to cut greenhouse-gas emissions − bringing them 38 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. The party says that’s what is required for Canada to do its part to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees above preindustrial levels.
To get there, the NDP says it would continue with Canada’s carbon-pricing regime, including maintaining the pricing set by the Liberals from 2019 to 2022.
However, New Democrats do plan to tweak the carbon tax. According to the party, the rebates that are currently sent to all households will no longer be sent to millionaires, and the extra exemptions that the Liberals gave to trade exposed industries through the output-based pricing system will be removed. This means all industrial heavy emitters will have to pay a carbon tax on emissions once their emissions exceed 70 per cent of the industry average. Under the Liberal government’s policies, the benchmark is 80 per cent and some sectors were given higher exemptions.
To reach the new targets, Leader Jagmeet Singh said New Democrats would spend $15-billion on their climate plan over the course of their first mandate.
The NDP is committing to a suite of aggressive timelines to remove fossil fuels from the electricity grid, transportation and building sectors. It would offer low-interest loans in order to finance energy-saving retrofits of all Canada’s housing stock by 2050, with half of them completed by 2030.
The party also wants to spur innovation by establishing a Canadian Climate Bank with a $3-billion fund for investments in the low-carbon economy. It would also eliminate fossil-fuel subsidies. To measure its progress, the NDP is promising to create an independent Climate Accountability Office to track the progress of emissions cuts.
Experts who spoke with The Globe and Mail said the key questions around the NDP’s plan come down to timing, details, and a failure to address jurisdictional barriers.
“They haven’t got the detail of how they would get there,” Prof. Harrison said, pointing out that it’s not clear how much emissions reduction would occur from electrification of transportation, or from home retrofits.
The same questions apply to the carbon tax, which under the NDP plan appears to have roughly the same trajectory as the Liberal levy.
Prof. Jaccard said that to be able to assess the party’s plan, he would need to see a carbon price that is progressively more stringent, but he said that option isn’t detailed in the plan. Similarly, he notes that none of the party’s goals around retrofits, the electrical grid or zero-emissions vehicles are accompanied by enforcement mechanisms. Without those mechanisms, he said, the uncertainty around their impact increases.
Finally, Prof. Leach, of the University of Alberta, notes that the plan set out by Mr. Singh would spark even more jurisdictional fights between Ottawa and the provinces. For example, building codes are adopted and enforced at the provincial level, rather than the federal level as suggested by the NDP’s plan.
To respond to climate change, Green Party Leader Elizabeth says Canada needs a “war cabinet” made up of members from all parties. She argues that a multi-partisan cabinet would take the politics out of climate change and allow the government to focus on the issues.
The party is pledging to double Canada’s GHG-reduction targets, bringing Canada’s goal to cut emissions to 60 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
The Greens say they would hike the carbon tax annually by $10 until 2030, which would raise it to $130 a tonne in that year.
The party also says it will eliminate all fossil-fuel subsidies and phase out bitumen production between 2030 and 2035 – effectively shuttering the oil sands. Non-oil-sands oil-and-gas production would also end as the Greens promise to ban hydraulic fracking.
The Greens would also stop all pipeline expansion, including the Trans Mountain pipeline project.
Similarly to the NDP, the Green Party is proposing to dramatically change the building, electricity and transportation sectors, but on even tighter timelines.
They would ban the sale of internal combustion engine passenger vehicles by 2030, phase out all traditional cars by 2040, and exempt used electric and zero-emission vehicles from federal sales tax. They pledge to require energy-saving retrofits of all buildings – residential, commercial and industrial – by 2030. And they propose to eliminate coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels from Canada’s electricity generation by 2030 – including in remote and northern communities.
The concerns expressed by experts over the timing, costs and lack of detail about the NDP’s plan are amplified when they turn to the Green Party. A question echoed by profs Jaccard, Harrison and Leach was “how” the party would meet the goals.
A regional dimension that is not addressed in the Green Party’s plan is what happens to refineries in Montreal and New Brunswick when the Green Party bans fossil-fuel imports. At the national level, Mr. Leach said the plan could look doable because we are a net exporter of crude but he notes that since no pipeline connects eastern Canada to the prairies, those refineries could be cut off. “There’s something that has to give,” Mr. Leach said: either those refineries are shut down or the party has to build pipelines or expand rail and tanker capacity.
Its proposal to phaseout all fossil-fuel electricity hits up against regional and timeline challenges, which Mr. Leach said “make it nearly impossible.” Electricity is a provincially regulated business, and in some cases, provincially owned.
Alberta is currently in the midst of replacing coal with renewable sources and natural gas. That cuts related emissions in half but it’s still a fossil fuel.
The mammoth task of retrofitting all housing stock also raises timeline questions, according to several experts who spoke with The Globe. Put in perspective, it would require 10 per cent of people to be moved out of their houses each year for a decade in order to complete the retrofits in the time prescribed by the party.
“It’s more of a signalling device than a credible plan,” Ms. Winter said.
Canada’s Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollutant Emissions Projections, Environment and Climate Change Canada
Closing the Gap: Carbon Pricing for the Paris Target, Parliamentary Budget Office
Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5 ºC, UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Clean Canada: Protecting the Environment and Growing our Economy, Environment and Climate Change Canada
Coal-to-Gas Conversions Project, TransAlta
U.S. Energy Information Administration
Coal phaseout: the Powering Past Coal Alliance, Environment and Climate Change Canada
A New Plan for a Strong Middle Class, Liberal Party’s 2015 election platform
A Real Plan to Protect our Environment, Conservative Party
Power to Change: A new deal for climate action and good jobs, NDP
Mission: Possible, the Green Climate Action Plan, Green Party
Andrew Leach, University of Alberta
Jennifer Winter, University of Calgary
Mark Jaccard, Simon Fraser University, and member of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Kathryn Harrison, University of British Columbia
Chris Ragan, chair, Ecofiscal Commission