What do party promises about climate change really mean?

The countries of the world will convene in Paris this November in a last-ditch attempt to limit global warming to 2C. That meeting is especially important for Canada, since by virtue of our Northern latitude we can expect roughly twice the global average temperature increase.

The Paris meeting is also important because, with our highly carbon-intensive economy Canada is one of the countries with the farthest to go to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. It is thus fitting that each of the four national parties’ election platforms includes plans to address climate change. How do they compare?

The Conservative government has committed that Canada will reduce its emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. The Green Party has committed to 40% below 2005 by 2025. The NDP have promised a 34% reduction related to a 1990 baseline, equivalent to 46% below 2005 levels, by 2025. The Liberals have not stated a reduction target. However, it would be difficult to backtrack on the 30% by 2030 target Canada has already submitted to the UN.

Targets are easy to announce but much harder to meet. Indeed, Canadian governments have announced seven different climate action targets over the last 25 years, but moved the goalposts each time it became apparent that the latest target would not be met. With emissions steadily increasing, Environment Canada has projected that, yet again, we will fall well short of our current target to reduce emissions to 17% below 2005 levels. At least as important as targets is what the parties would do to meet them.

The Conservative Party would stay the course with their government’s sector-by-sector regulatory strategy. Although some new regulations are proposed, the Conservatives have rejected regulation of emissions from oil sands extraction. Since that sector alone accounts for the majority of Canada’s continuing emissions growth, it is not credible that the Conservatives’ strategy would meet their own 2030 target, short of a deep recession.

The other parties all have embraced variants of carbon pricing. The Greens would impose a fee on all carbon pollution, returning all revenue to Canadians via equal dividend cheques. The pollution fee would need to be increased over time to prompt deeper reductions to achieve near- and long-term targets.

The NDP would adopt a cap and trade program for “big polluters.” As with a carbon fee, the national cap would need to be steadily decreased to meet the 2025 target. While resulting pollution control costs that would be passed on to consumers are less visible than under a carbon tax, they would in fact be identical to meet the same emissions target.

A critical gap in the NDP plan is how it would address small sources, such as motor vehicles, homes, and farms, which collectively account for half of Canada’s emissions. We simply cannot achieve the proposed scale of reductions by targeting industry alone.

The Liberals have promised a national carbon price to be developed in collaboration with the provinces, but have provided little detail. A critical question for the Liberals is how they would gain agreement from provinces with conflicting goals.

In that regard, the proposed “Medicare approach” is less than convincing. Conditional federal grants helped to induce provincial participation in Medicare, since that program involved significant costs for provincial governments. Federal funding provides less leverage over climate policy, since pollution control costs will be borne primarily by the private sector, not provincial governments. The NDP proposal only to allow provinces that meet or beat federal criteria to opt out of a federal carbon pricing program is more credible.

Proposed pipelines also are connected to climate change, since they demand expanded oil sands production, which in turn will yield increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Conditional on environmental assessments, the Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP each have left the door open to one or more pipelines, though the NDP assessments would include climate impacts. The Green Party opposes expansion of oil sands production and all proposed pipelines.

In sum, the Green Party has offered the clearest program to fight climate change. The NDP is close behind, but questions of feasibility remain given the party’s focus on industrial emissions. The Liberal platform is least clear with respect to either goals or means, though a commitment to a consistent national price on carbon is an important step forward.  As a continuation of current policy, the Conservative platform seems destined to yield a continuation of increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and yet another failure to meet domestic and international climate action targets.

Dr. Kathryn Harrison is a Professor in the University of BC Political Science department

Ryan Vandecasteyen
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What do party promises about climate change really mean?
What do party promises about climate change really mean?
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