Earlier this summer, people watched in horror as the once largely unknown town of Lytton, British Columbia, logged Canada’s highest temperatures ever on record three days in a row—right before a devastating forest fire razed the town to the ground.
“It’s dire. The whole town is on fire,” the town’s mayor, Jan Polderman, said at the time. “It took, like, a whole 15 minutes from the first sign of smoke to, all of a sudden, there being fire everywhere.”
The catastrophe coincided with an unprecedented “heat dome” event that scorched cities and towns across western Canada, killing hundreds of people and devastating ecosystems. Forest fires burned everywhere, including in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario, and the smoke wafting from them covered major cities, such as Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, and elsewhere, for days on end.
Together, the extreme weather events sharpened Canadians’ focus on climate change; if its effects weren’t clear before, they should be now.
“With every passing year and passing fire season and flood season and everything else, it becomes harder and harder to pretend climate change is not a problem,” said Eugene Kung, a staff attorney with the Vancouver-based West Coast Environmental Law.
Canada’s temperatures are indisputably rising. According to Canada’s Changing Climate report, published in 2019 by Natural Resource Canada, average temperatures across Canada increased by 1.7 C between 1948 and 2016. The number jumps to 2.3 C for northern Canada. “It is virtually certain that Canada’s climate has warmed and that it will warm further in the future,” the report says.
Canada is currently in the middle of a snap election, and the political party that wins will get to influence the country’s climate policy for the foreseeable future—possibly undeterred for four years if one of the parties wins a majority government. It’ll make decisions around carbon pricing, national parks, transitions away from oil and gas, and more.
“Our fate lies in the hands of the next parliament,” said Seth Klein, a Simon Fraser University professor and author of A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency.
According to a new Angus Reid poll, one-fifth of Canadians consider climate change the top election issue for 2021, making it the top issue, beating out even health care and taxes. Yet none of the parties are treating climate change like the emergency it is, Klein said. There’s “tons missing” from party platforms that would meaningfully tackle the crisis—like the fact that the pledged timelines for slashing emissions aren’t ambitious enough, Klein said.
“The biggest trend compared to two years ago is that every political party across the spectrum feels compelled to table a climate plan,” he said.
Experts agree that the Conservatives have the least ambitious climate plan. It’s “only marginally less laughable” than its commitments in 2019, Klein said. Not to mention, the party’s membership voted against recognizing climate change. But the Liberals lost voter trust after pursuing policies that ran counter to their climate commitments—like purchasing the Trans Mountain Pipeline. And while the NDP offer ambitious and innovative goals, including retrofitting all buildings by 2050 and creating a climate corps of young workers who can respond to climate events, their platform offers scant details that map out how they’ll be implemented. The same is true of the Green Party, which is known for its climate-first politics but hasn’t released an in-depth 2021 platform.
“It’s no longer politically acceptable to ignore the problem. Even Conservatives who don't have a great plan have one and I think that's telling,” Kung said. “This election is a huge opportunity for Canadians to elect a government who will take meaningful action.”
Here’s what Canada's four main federal parties have to say about key issues:
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions
Each of the four parties has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has pledged to cut emissions by 40-45 percent from 2005 levels by 2030—an increase from the 30 percent Canada pledged at the 2015 Paris climate talks—and net-zero emissions by 2050. The platform also promises to slash oil and gas sector emissions specifically. The party has a track record of saying one thing and doing another, though. In a perplexing move last month, Canada’s Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said the country can’t fight the climate crisis without revenue from the Trans Mountain Pipeline...which relies on the oil and gas industry to make money.
Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole’s platform strikes a decidedly more pro-oil and gas tone, but his party’s platform nonetheless pledges to meet Canada’s Paris climate commitment. He also says he wants at least 15 percent of emissions caused by downstream consumption—emissions caused by the conversion of crude oil into gasoline, for example—to be renewable by 2030. O’Toole reiterates his commitment to oil and gas, pitting it as a cleaner and better option to coal. There are few specifics about how a Conservative government would hold large industry polluters accountable.
The NDP have promised to reduce emissions by at least 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, in part by getting rid of all fossil fuel subsidies and slashing methane emissions. The party also wants all of Canada’s electricity to be emission-free by 2040.
The Greens have said they’d pass legislation that’ll ensure Canada reaches net-zero carbon by 2050. (The Liberals and NDP worked together to enshrine similar legislation, but it doesn’t go far enough, according to the Greens.) When it comes to electricity, they have a slightly more ambitious plan than the NDP because they want 100 percent of Canadian electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030. Neither party says how they’ll accomplish the goal and getting to 100 percent is complicated. (Together, water, wind, and biomass—organic material that comes from plants and animals—produce just under two-thirds of Canada’s electricity today, according to Natural Resources Canada.)
In contrast to the Liberals, who said the Trans Mountain Pipeline will help them pay for climate policies, the Greens said they’d cancel the pipeline and reinvest those funds into a national electricity grid.
Each party has nodded at the need to transition to electric vehicles, but the NDP platform largely focuses on enhancing public transportation and taking cars off the road. The Conservatives don’t think reliance on public transit is “realistic.”
Under Trudeau’s leadership, the Liberal party already implemented a carbon pricing scheme that gradually raises the price of carbon for consumers and industry until it reaches $170 per tonne in 2030. (Right now it sits at $40 per tonne and will increase to $50 next year.) Many Canadians are eligible for a “climate action incentive” that offsets the upfront costs people pay for carbon by essentially lowering their annual taxes (the payments move to a quarterly scheme in 2022). The party has pledged to maintain this scheme.
Conservatives have long opposed carbon pricing and taxation, but this year, they’ve committed to implementing it “without one penny going to the government.” When it comes to setting a price, the party said it won’t go above $50/tonne for consumers. It will only charge industry $170/tonne if, after collaborating with countries like the US, Canada is still not on track to reach its 2030 climate goals. Part of the Conservative scheme reads less like a deterrent and more like an incentive to keep using fossil fuels: when Canadians buy fuel, they’ll earn cash back that’ll be stowed away in a “Personal Low Carbon Savings Account.” Those credits can then be used to buy eco-friendly items or services, including a public transit pass, a bicycle, or green home renos.
The NDP have pledged to continue carbon pricing, while stating it’s not enough to tackle the crisis and “further action is needed.” The Greens have supported a carbon tax for more than a decade.
All of the parties have voiced support for “border carbon adjustments,” which will essentially slap additional costs onto imports from countries that aren’t working to reduce emissions. The Conservatives are the only party that specifically singled out China for being a major polluter.
It’s not just extreme weather events Canadians need to look out for—the country’s entire economy is at the mercy of climate change. Experts say we can either pivot now and become world leaders in green economies, or we’ll lag. That’s why most of the parties specifically talk about how they plan to meet the moment.
The Liberals promise to invest in green jobs across sectors, including for people who know how to retrofit buildings and those who manufacture electric cars. A transition away from fossil fuels and to renewables is also imminent, so the party’s platform says it will work alongside oil and gas workers, Indigenous communities, and unions to work out transition strategies. It also wants to build a training centre that will help trade workers upgrade their skills, so they can ultimately move into greener jobs, such as solar panel installation.
Greens have long advocated for a green transition and are also pledging to invest in green training for trades, apprenticeships, and educational facilities. They want to establish their own version of a training centre for fossil fuel workers—a “Green Worker Training Program”—to help move them to renewable energy industries. On a personal level, the Greens will offer a tax credit for people who update their homes with greener appliances. It’s something the Liberals and Conservatives both touted during the 2019 election and is currently in place.
The NDP have promised to use green infrastructure and investments to create one million new jobs that help protect workers who will be most affected by transition. Again, their platform offers few details.
Conservatives, on the other hand, offer little in terms of transition, and instead criticize the move entirely. “The Liberals believe that we can only reduce our emissions by ‘phasing out’ entire industries and the jobs that provide a secure living for hundreds of thousands of Canadian families. Conservatives appreciate that we can’t build a greener future if Canadians don’t have jobs,” the platform says.
The Greens want to create a Chief Climate Science Officer—akin to a Chief Medical Officer—to whom politicians will defer to on climate matters. Meanwhile, the Liberals have committed to establishing 10 new national parks within the next five years, while working with Indigenous communities on park management. The NDP, in particular, connects the climate crisis with other inequities: part of their plan includes implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as part of a “collective fight against the climate crisis.” They also want to establish an Office of Environmental Justice that will respond to the disproportionate consequences of climate change on racialized, low-income, and other underrepresented Canadians.
Oh, and all of the parties plan to plant a lot of trees.
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