Election 2015: What’s been said and where we go from here

Blog - Oct. 15, 2015 - By Erin Flanagan

Photo: Roberta Franchuk, Pembina Institute

Don’t let anyone tell you politicians are all the same. Energy and environmental issues have played an important role in this year’s federal election — and Canada’s political leaders offer different approaches and levels of ambition when it comes to addressing them.

Recent polling numbers suggest that Canadians are keen to see the federal government and the provinces take action to fight climate change. So with a public appetite for progress and the election less than a week away, we’re recapping what each of the major national parties is promising to voters.

Climate change touches almost every aspect of our economy and energy system, so this isn’t an exhaustive assessment. Rather, we’re focusing on three key climate issues: Canada's emissions targets — which of course are tied to the upcoming United Nations climate change negotiations in Paris — as well as carbon pricing and environmental assessments.

1. Emissions targets and Canada’s international role

The election will determine how Canada shows up in Paris, both in terms of who we send to represent us and, more critically, their mandate and intention to positively influence the international process.

Global momentum is building and major emitters are moving forward with new plans, such as the United States’ Clean Power Plan or China’s national cap-and-trade program. These announcements underscore the importance of urgent action from Canada, and further weaken our past justifications for inaction. Here’s what the parties are promising to bring to Paris if elected:

Conservative Party LogoConservative Party

The Conservative platform makes reference to Canada’s Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) that was submitted to the United Nations in May. This INDC establishes a national emissions reduction target of 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Expressed another way, this represents a 14 per cent reduction below 1990 emissions levels.

Liberal party logoLiberal Party

The Liberal platform commits to the goal of keeping global temperature increases below two degrees Celsius. The Liberals promise to establish national targets in consultation with the provinces and territories, but have refused to commit to specific targets at this time. The Liberals have also committed to establishing a “pan-Canadian framework for combatting climate change” within 90 days of attending the Paris negotiations.

NDP logoNew Democratic Party

The New Democrats have committed to legislate an emissions reduction target of 34 per cent below 1990 levels by no later than 2030, and 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. The party has also promised to reintroduce the Climate Change Accountability Act, which commits to five-year progress reviews — a prudent accountability mechanism to ensure Canada is making progress towards its climate goals. Further, the New Democrats have committed to bringing a “clear plan of action” to the Paris negotiations later this year, and would include provincial and territorial leaders, opposition critics and experts from civil society in their official Canadian delegation.

Green party logoGreen Party

The Green platform commits to a short-term emissions reduction target of 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025, and a medium-term target of 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. To achieve this, the Greens call for “virtual elimination of fossil fuel use in Canada by mid-century.” The platform also commits to collaborating across party lines at the Paris negotiations to ensure “pragmatic and realistic climate leadership.” Green leader Elizabeth May has also indicated her party would work to a ensure Canada had a meaningful climate change plan in place before the Paris summit, and that the Canadian delegation negotiates in good faith with other international players.

Analysis: Emissions targets

Canada’s INDC has been deemed inadequate by international experts: it is not consistent with Canada’s equitable contribution to a two-degree warming limit. No federal government attending the Paris negotiations with this INDC can say its actions align with the United Nations’ negotiating text, in terms of both ambition and timeliness.

On the issue of improved targets, it’s unclear how the Liberals could update Canada’s inadequate INDC without releasing new emissions reduction numbers in advance of the Paris summit. Both the NDP and the Greens, however, would be well-positioned to update Canada’s INDC to align with their emissions targets.

2. A national approach to carbon pricing

Some provinces have adopted policies that put a price on carbon emissions, but most have not. Current provincial policies include an economy-wide carbon tax in British Columbia, an intensity-based program for industrial emitters in Alberta and a cap-and-trade program in Quebec.

These are important steps, and we've seen encouraging outcomes in some jurisdictions, but these policies alone aren’t sufficient to meet Canada’s long-term climate objectives. Here’s what the parties are saying on carbon pricing:

Conservative Party LogoConservative Party

The Conservative platform reiterates the party’s intention to pursue a sector-by-sector regulatory approach instead of a national price on carbon. To date, this approach has resulted in inadequate regulations for coal-fired power. And despite oil and gas now being the single largest source of emissions in Canada, the Conservative platform does not commit to regulate the sector’s carbon dioxide emissions. Regulations for the oil and gas sector have been in the works since 2008 but repeatedly delayed without adequate justification. Prior to the writ drop, the government announced its intention to regulate methane emissions from oil and gas, but these regulations have yet to be introduced.

Liberal party logoLiberal Party

The Liberal platform commits to “provide national leadership and join with the provinces and territories to take action on climate change, put a price on carbon, and reduce carbon pollution.” Should they form government, the Liberals intend to create a $2 billion trust fund with a mandate to “materially reduce carbon emissions” across the country. The Liberal framework would allow provinces and territories to design their own carbon pricing systems to achieve their contribution to a national climate commitment.

The Liberals have not provided information on a minimum carbon price, or other national standards, that would be used to ensure that provincial carbon policies align with federal targets. And the Liberals have not yet discussed how their government would deal with provinces that do not contribute their fair share of emissions reductions under the pan-Canadian framework.

NDP logoNew Democratic Party

The NDP platform re-affirms the party’s intention to establish a national cap-and-trade system. Such a system would be limited to “major polluters,” though a specific emissions threshold for qualifying as large is not provided in the platform. The New Democrats would recognize existing provincial efforts on carbon pricing, and allow jurisdictions to opt out of the national system if their policies meet or exceed the federal standards. The national program would be revenue neutral for the federal government: all the funds collected would be returned to the provinces, for reinvestment in emissions reduction efforts.

Green party logoGreen Party

If elected, the Greens have committed to introducing a national “fee and dividend” approach to carbon pricing. This program would place an economy-wide price on carbon, and all revenue would be returned to individual Canadians in the form of an annual dividend. In a June publication, the Green party describes their preferred carbon price as a “science-based levy on the carbon content (global warming potential) of fossil fuels”. Their climate plan suggests a national fee of $50 per tonne of carbon pollution in 2015, set to rise to a maximum of $200 per tonne in 2030, might be appropriate for Canada.

Analysis: Carbon pricing

Regardless of the policy instrument employed, experts agree that Canada needs a meaningful price on all emissions. A credible plan must apply a minimum price to carbon emissions in all provinces and territories, as well as all sectors of the economy. Any national price should also be designed to increase over time in a transparent, ambitious and predictable way.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the federal government must have a binding mechanism to ensure that provinces and territories contribute their fair share to the country’s emissions reductions plan. While it may be appropriate to let a province opt-out of a specific pricing mechanism, they shouldn’t be allowed to opt-out of pulling their weight on climate change.

3. Climate-inclusive environmental assessments

Because of the lifespan of most energy infrastructure projects, capital decisions made today will affect emissions for decades to come. Once assets such as pipelines, rail tracks and electricity transmission lines are built, the emissions they induce are locked into the energy system for decades.

It’s essential that Canada’s environmental assessment process factors in climate change, to ensure we don’t approve infrastructure that could result in emissions inconsistent with the International Energy Agency’s scenarios for avoiding dangerous global warming. Here’s what the parties are saying on integrating climate change into environmental assessments:

Conservative Party LogoConservative Party

The Conservative government passed Bill C-38 in 2012, which reduced the scope of environmental assessments and other federal environmental laws. It also gave cabinet the ability to approve projects, such as oilsands mines or pipelines. Ministers now have the power to approve projects, and override technical panel findings of significant, adverse environmental impacts, if they believe those impacts are “justified in the circumstances.”

The Conservative platform commits to making final decisions on individual projects based on the recommendations of expert bodies. At present, this does not include a meaningful assessment of project-specific carbon emissions.

Liberal party logoLiberal Party

The Liberal platform makes a number of commitments to modernize Canada’s environmental assessment process. These include allowing meaningful public participation, ensuring evidence-based decision making and ending cabinet interference in the environmental assessment process. The Liberals were the first party to reference including upstream carbon emissions in the environmental assessment process within their platform.

NDP logoNew Democratic Party

The NDP platform affirms the party’s support for a strong federal role in environmental assessment, and for public participation in project reviews. On climate change, the New Democrats have committed to an improved national environmental assessment process that considers cumulative effects, regional assessments and emissions impacts. Their platform also includes a commitment to apply a “green lens” to all new federal legislation, to ensure consistency with a strengthened Sustainable Development Act.

Green party logoGreen Party

The Green platform re-affirms the party’s opposition to all pipelines and oil tanker projects that support raw bitumen export, and further states that most of the bitumen in Alberta’s oilsands must stay in the ground. Environmental Defence and Équiterre have reported in a platform questionnaire that the Greens intend to “incorporate life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions into all assessments of future fossil fuel infrastructure projects and ensure any projects conform with our long-term goals of transitioning to a low-carbon economy.” However, this commitment does not appear in the party’s official platform.

Analysis: Environmental assessments

Although the Liberals and the New Democrats have both committed to including carbon emissions in project reviews, some questions remain. It’s unclear how those individual environmental assessments connect to the bigger picture: would each project be analyzed relative to Canada’s international climate obligations?

No party has clearly articulated how energy infrastructure projects would be evaluated to ensure their consistency with climate objectives. Any federal government must ensure that short-term infrastructure decisions don’t stymie long-term plans to decouple economic growth from emissions increases. Federal regulators need a mandate to consider how new infrastructure projects affect Canada’s ability to meet its international climate commitments — a “climate test” for new projects.

Where do we go from here?

Over the course of the election, we’ve been pleased to see Canada’s leaders consider the country’s role in combatting climate change. But there are clear differences in ambition and approach –— most notably on national emissions targets and carbon pricing.

Without federal leadership, Canada will continue to lag behind other countries. And while some platform promises give us hope that the situation will change, implementation is what counts and the devil is in the details. We’ll be watching closely for those details following the results of Monday’s election.


Erin Flanagan

Erin is the director of the Pembina Institute's federal policy program and specializes in climate policy and environmental assessments.


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