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Election 2021: Implications for Climate and the Environment

September 2021

The outcome of last week’s election – a Liberal minority dependent on the NDP or Bloc Quebecois for support – has been widely seen as having a ‘groundhog day’ aspect to it, leaving things pretty as they were before.  As such it reinforced questions about the necessity of the election in the first place.

Although seen as an election about ‘nothing,’ the outcome has major implications for Canada’s approach to climate change and other environmental issues.  The results are likely what many progressives wanted -  a Liberal government, but one which they may not entirely trust to carry through on its promises on climate, child care and a host of other issues - reliant on more pressive parties to stay in office.

The Liberals were re-elected, despite losing popular vote, in part due to concerns over vote splitting on part of progressive voters, driven by suspicions that Conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s personal repositioning towards the centre may not have carried the rest of his party with him. Those doubts were reinforced by Mr. O’Toole’s difficulties in getting his party to acknowledge the reality of climate change or the need for some form of carbon pricing.

The Liberals, for their part, relied on the relative ‘efficiency’ of their vote in translating into seats in the House of Commons, particularly in urban areas. Although successful in the case of this month’s election, it is ultimately a fragile strategy. It is a model that depends on the primary opposition alternative continuing to make itself unelectable in the eyes of many voters. As the Ontario Liberals found in 2018, it is an approach of which progressive voters will eventually tire no matter how bad the alternative.

In the shorter term, the Liberal’s efforts to hold onto progressive voters in the face of challenges from the NDP, Greens and, in Quebec, the Bloc Quebecois, translated into an impressive menu of climate commitments. Even before the election, the government expanded Canada’s Nationally Determined Commitment under the 2015 Paris Climate Change Agreement from 30% to a 40-45% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 relative to 2005. There have been references to longer-term commitments to net-zero emissions by 2050 as well.

The government’s December 2020 climate policy paper proposed to increase the backstop federal carbon price to $170/tonne by 2030. The government is now expected to carry through on that direction.

The campaign itself produced a promise to reduce fossil industry emissions “from current levels at a pace and scale needed to achieve net-zero by 2050, with five-year targets starting in 2025.” There were also commitments to a 75% reduction in fossil industry methane emissions from 2012 levels by 2030, and to “develop a plan to phase-out public financing of the fossil fuel sector, including from Crown corporations.”

In addition to the existing planned phase-out of conventional coal-fired electricity generation by 2030, a proposed ‘Clean Electricity Standard’ would bring the electricity grid to net-zero by 2035, and end to thermal coal exports by 2030.

With respect to transportation, there are to be targets for new zero-emission passenger vehicles of 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2035 and EV rebates of up to C$5,000 each for 500,000 buyers, plus 50,000 new charging stations across the country. A longstanding commitment to move forward with a low-carbon fuel standard is expected to limit the upstream GHG emissions associated with fossil fuels.

On buildings the re-elected Liberal government has promised $5,000 energy retrofit grants for nearly half a million households, with interest-free loans of up to $40,000 for deeper retrofits. There is also to be a national strategy to bring the building stock to net-zero by 2050 with “ambitious milestones along the way.”

The crucial question now will be the follow-though on these commitments. Many of the government’s promised, like the commitments to reduce fossil fuel and electricity sector emissions, could lead to significant federal-provincial conflicts, particularly with Alberta and Saskatchewan. The Liberal’s government approach had already embedded some profound and contradictions, particularly the purchase and approval of the Transmountain pipeline, support for controversial technologies like small modular nuclear reactors, carbon capture and storage, and fossil fuel dependant ‘blue’ and ‘grey’ hydrogen technologies.

Liberal governments also do have had a long history making major commitments to climate action, but failing when it came to implementation – most infamously over Canada’s commitments under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to reduce its GHG emissions by 6% relative to its 1990 levels.

To its credit Mr. Trudeau’s government had already implemented far more substantive climate policy measures than all of its predecessors, Liberal and Conservative, combined. Government’s minority status, dependent on two opposition parties with relatively strong commitments to climate action, will be an important factor in seeing these further commitments, all of which are needed to achieve Canada’s climate change targets, through to implementation. Even then it remains an open question whether the level of ambition the re-elected Liberals propose will be enough to meet Canada’s revised GHG emission reduction targets.

The election has significant implications for the other major parties around the environment as well. For the Conservatives, despite Mr. O’Toole’s recognition of the reality of climate change and the need for some form of carbon pricing and wider climate change strategy, the party’s credibility on the issue remains suspect. That problem is reinforced by the anti-environment legacy of the Harper government, and the behaviour of the existing Conservative governments in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario on the issue. Canadians clearly need a lot more convincing that Mr. O’Toole’s repositioning of his party on the question is real.

The catastrophic collapse of the Green vote to its lowest level in two decades came as no surprise given the internal turmoil suffered by the party. Leader Annamie Paul’s very credible performances in the leaders’ debates sadly did little to help the party’s situation.

In some ways the Greens’ situation poses even bigger questions for NDP. That party was unable to make any significant gains among progressive voters despite the Greens’ collapse, and a relatively strong campaign performance by leader Jagmeet Singh.

These outcomes for the party have been attributed to a number of factors. The long-standing problem of strategic voting in favour of the Liberals to prevent a Conservative win, wasn’t helped by a platform that was surprisingly thin on details around climate change.

The overall results have left Canada reasonably well-positioned to move forward on its climate commitments. The question now will be whether the re-elected Trudeau government will carry through on its promises. Its survival through the next federal election may well depend on the results.