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Canada’s election comes at a critical time in the climate fight

Updated: Oct 6, 2021

By Merran Smith & Sarah Petrevan | Opinion, Politics | September 1st 2021

Penticton - Skaha Creek fire Aug 30, 2021 Over 200 hectares, out of control, threatening PIB homes.

Canada is entering an election amid record-breaking wildfires, heat waves, and floods that have wiped out towns and destroyed communities. There’s no doubt this is a critical time in the climate fight, and the party that governs after Sept. 20 will play a huge role in Canada’s ability to tackle the crisis in the years to come.

The good news is that the political landscape is shifting in the right direction. Unlike the last federal campaign where anti-carbon pricing rhetoric dominated the debate, this time around, every major political party is offering some sort of commitment to climate action.

But not all climate action is created equal. To help voters navigate the noise, below is a quick summary of what the major federal parties are offering on the climate file, put into perspective.

Varying ambition

Directly comparing party climate plans isn’t easy. Each is aiming for a different emissions target, and plans to get there vary in the amount of detail each party has provided.

But let's start with those targets. Earlier this year, the Liberal government announced it would increase Canada’s climate target, committing to cut greenhouse gas emissions between 40 per cent to 45 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, up from the previous target of 30 per cent. The increase followed similar commitments from other countries, including our biggest trading partners, making it a good move not only from a climate standpoint but also an economic one.

For comparison, the Conservative Party’s climate plan will not meet Canada’s current Paris target but rather would take Canada backward to an outdated 30 per cent one. Meanwhile, the NDP are gunning for a stronger target of at least 50 per cent below the 2005 benchmark — similar to the Biden administration. The Green Party of Canada advocates a 60 per cent cut, as it did in the 2019 election.

But targets are only waypoints, and it is the plan to meet them that ultimately matters most.

Election promises

The Liberals, NDP and Greens all aim to build on Canada’s climate efforts. They want to increase both ambition and action — while the Conservatives want to go backward, write @merransmith and @sarahcpetrevan of @cleanenergyca. #elxn44 #cdnpoli

Looking forward, the big focus areas for the next decade need to be clean electricity, clean transportation, and driving down oil and gas emissions with accountable milestones. This past Sunday, the Liberals announced an election climate platform that checks all those boxes.

Canada’s electricity grid is already 83 per cent emissions-free, and the new Liberal plan is to get that to 100 per cent by 2035 as we grow our clean grid to power Canada’s energy transition — essentially, matching the Biden administration’s 100 per cent clean electricity goal in the U.S.

On transportation, the Liberals now have a plan to hit their recently announced target of selling only zero-emission cars by 2035: a requirement that at least 50 per cent of all new passenger vehicle sales are electric by 2030, on the way to 100 per cent by 2035.

The Liberals will also extend their federal electric vehicle (EV) rebate by another three years while supporting the expansion of charging infrastructure. Transportation is responsible for a quarter of all emissions in this country, so proactively solving Canada’s car conundrum is critical.

And finally, the new Liberal plan looks to drive down oil and gas sector emissions with five-year targets all the way to net-zero by 2050. This industry alone is our largest source of emissions and responsible for 26 per cent of Canada’s contribution to climate change. Further oil and gas expansion threatens to undermine our climate efforts elsewhere, and the reality is that these companies need to reduce emissions now if they want to compete and not become relics. The best oil companies around the world are already transforming themselves into clean energy companies.

Beyond this weekend’s announcements, the Liberal-led federal government has taken other key steps over the past year, most notably proposing to raise the carbon price to $170 per tonne by 2030. The federal government also invested in clean industries, channelling billions into the Net Zero Accelerator Initiative to fund projects that cut emissions. And the last year has seen the feds make deals with the Ontario government, Canada’s largest union, and the Big Three automakers to assemble electric vehicles in Canada.

In combination, measures in the government’s December 2020 climate update and Budget 2021 were projected to achieve emission reductions of 36 per cent by 2030. Meaning that, even ahead of its new election promises, Canada was already set to achieve stronger emission reductions than the Conservatives’ proposed alternative plan, projected to achieve only a 30 per cent reduction. Of course, the gap between the two parties’ respective targets is wider still.

To hit their weaker target, the Conservatives propose adopting a carbon price starting at $20 per tonne and increasing to a maximum of $50 per tonne. However, it’s important to note that the party would raise the industrial carbon price only as long as Canada's trading partners, notably the U.S. and the EU, do the same — despite the party’s modelling relying on an increased price of $170 a tonne by 2030 to meet its target.

On transportation, the party would introduce an EV standard, but would only require 30 per cent of new car sales to be electric by 2030. The plan also includes investment in electricity transmission infrastructure to support EV growth, along with other measures.

In short, the Conservative climate plan is, unlike in 2019, at least a real plan. At the same time, it is insufficient and would represent a globally embarrassing step backward.

The NDP, meanwhile, intends to implement the current government’s carbon pricing plan and the 2035 ban on selling fossil-fuel-powered cars. Additionally, it would increase EV incentives up to $15,000 per family for made-in-Canada vehicles. The party would also aim to electrify transit and other municipal fleets by 2030 and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, redirecting these funds to low-carbon initiatives.

On electricity, the NDP would push for a net-zero electricity grid by 2030, five years ahead of the Liberal target, and would introduce carbon budgets for different sectors, with the same net-zero 2050 goal as the Liberal approach to oil and gas.

Finally, the Greens have indicated general support for a carbon price, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, and shifting to renewables, but the party has not specified in detail how it would meet its 60 per cent target.

Ultimately, while details and approaches vary, the Liberals, NDP and Greens all aim to build on Canada’s climate efforts. They want to increase both ambition and action — and one party, the Conservatives, wants to go backward.

This summer reminded us that everything from our economy to our backyard is being impacted by climate change. Election 2021 comes at a critical time for both combating climate change and growing Canada’s low-carbon competitive advantage. Whatever happens on Sept. 20, let’s hope we emerge with a government ready to meet the opportunity.

Merran Smith is the executive director and Sarah Petrevan is the policy director of Clean Energy Canada, a program at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue.

Canada’s election comes at a critical time in the climate fight
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