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Climate Action hangs in election balance

Published in The Conversation, September 14, 2021; Corporate Knights, September 20, 2021

September 5, 2021

Canadian voters concerned about climate change find themselves presented with a series of dilemmas was we approach the September 21st federal election.  The environment often finds itself being discussed as a ‘forgotten issue’ once political parties are on the campaign trail. This time, propelled by the catastrophic wildfires in BC this summer, and the dire conclusions of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s just-released sixth assessment report, the environment, and more specifically climate change, sits at or near the top of the list of issues highest in voters’ minds.  At the same time, the Trudeau government’s early election call may have set the stage for a major setback on actual action on the climate.

The election call was met with immediate questions about its rationale, given a minority, but relatively stable and productive Parliament, the crisis in Afghanistan, and a mounting forth COVID-19 wave. Polls have been showing Trudeau’s Liberals running behind Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives. These results are in part a product of Mr. O’Toole’s so-far successful repositioning of his party towards the political centre, including a belated recognition of the reality of climate change and the need for some form of carbon pricing.  But it is important to look beyond the re-branding and consider what a Conservative win might mean for Canada’s approach to climate change.

Progressive voters have been left confused and more than a little annoyed by Mr. Trudeau’s election call. The Liberal minority government that resulted from the October 2019 election, was dependent on the support of Jagmeet Singh’s NDP, and to a lesser extent, Yves-Francois’ Blanchet’s Bloc Quebecois, to survive. The result had been considerable action on climate change and a host of other issues.

The Liberal government, bolstered by a series of court decisions culminating in a March 2021 ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada upholding the validity of its ‘backstop’ carbon pricing system, had implemented the federal system, as promised, in those provinces without adequate carbon pricing  systems of their own. The federal backstop charge on heating and transportation fuels now applies in Ontario, Manitoba, Yukon, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Nunavut.  An Output-Based Pricing System for industrial emitters applies in Ontario, New Brunswick, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, Yukon, Nunavut, and partially in Saskatchewan.

The carbon pricing system is not without significant weaknesses. The burden of the pricing system falls overwhelmingly on individual consumers and households rather than industry. In addition to the unfairness of this result, the effective cost to industrial facilities is far too low to significantly affect their behaviour.  Moreover, the standard applied by the federal government to provinces seeking exemptions on the basis of their own systems has been profoundly inconsistent.

At the same time, the Liberals had committed to: moving to carbon price to $170/tonne by 2030; revised Canada’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the 2015 Paris climate agreement from a commitment to a 30% reduction by 2030 a to 45% reduction; and adopted a broader net zero emission target for 2050. A national phase-out of coal-fired electricity has been accelerated, and new programs for funding public transit, electric vehicles and energy efficiency renovations for buildings are underway or proposed. In a reversal from the government’s previous contradictory position of both pursuing reductions greenhouse gas emissions and the expansion of fossil fuel exports the Prime Minister has confirmed a commitment implied in the government’s December 2020 climate policy paper to capping and reducing emissions from the fossil fuel sector.

More widely, the government has adopted legislation recognizing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), and has been moving forward with a national daycare scheme.

The risks in this context enormous. The unpopular and unwelcome election call, in combination with the growing 4th COVID wave, is a potential recipe for very low voter turnout. Under Canada’s first-past-the post electoral system, that carries with it the potential for fluky electoral outcomes. The core Conservative vote, for its part, is widely acknowledged to be very loyal and reliable, giving them a significant advantage in such a scenario.

Other factors may also favour the Conservatives, including the Bloc Quebecois’ potentially in complicated situation in Quebec. Although the federal Greens are a diminishing factor outside of a few specific ridings, the risks of significant vote splitting between the Liberals and NDP remain very high. The situation could lead to a Conservative plurality, if not even a majority government, on the basis of a portion of the popular vote below 35% and an even lower level of support from the total number of eligible voters.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole has, so far, done a skillful job of repositioning his party from the right to the moderate centre, but major questions still have to be asked what sort of government he would actually lead. Although acknowledging the reality of climate change, his party’s climate policies, particularly on carbon pricing, remain weak shadows of what is being proposed by the Liberals, NDP, Bloc and Greens. The Conservative party may see potential gains in Ontario and Quebec, but it is still fundamentally grounded in a resource development-oriented and climate-hostile base in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

A Conservative cabinet is likely to include more than a few hold-overs from the Stephen Harper era, a stage defined by the abandonment of Canada’s international climate change commitments, particularly the Kyoto Protocol.  A new Conservative federal government would likely draw heavily on the Kenney government in Alberta, and the Ford government in Ontario, for political staff and advisors. Both administrations have been noted for their unwillingness to act on climate change and poor management of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as their overwhelmingly pro-industry and conventional, carbon intense, development-path orientations.

All of this presents voters concerned about climate change and wider environmental and social issues with some very difficult choices. Many may prefer the option of a Liberal minority government dependant on the NDP, Bloc Quebecois and/or Greens for support. Such outcomes are, however, notoriously difficult to engineer, particularly from the perspective of individual voters. That problem is compounded by the Liberal’s failure to act on their 2015 commitments to democratic reform.

Conservative leader O’Tool’s recent stumbles on issues like gun-control may significantly weaken his party’s appeal to moderate voters, particularly in Quebec and in urban areas. But Canadians are still faced with an unwanted election, that has placed progress on a wider range of fronts at unnecessary risk.