For 20 Whole Minutes, Climate Change Was the Most Important Issue of the Canadian Election

At the latest Canadian election debate, Justin Trudeau and Erin O’Toole tried to explain why their plans were the most ambitious and the most effective, while staying away from pesky details.
Justin Ling
Montreal, CA
September 9, 2021, 1:15pm
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau gestures to Conservative leader Erin O'Toole as he speaks during the federal election French-language leaders debate, Wednesday, September 8, 2021 in Gatineau, Que.

The leaders of Canada’s major political parties finally had a chance to dig into how, exactly, they would tackle the increasingly catastrophic effects of climate change, with just days to go before voters begin casting their ballots.

Onstage in Ottawa, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau faced off against Conservative Erin O’Toole, NDPer Jagmeet Singh, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, and the Green Party’s Annamie Paul in her first national debate.


For 20 minutes in the French language debate in Gatineau, Quebec, the leaders tried to stress their plan as the most ambitious, yet effective, making it the longest climate change has been in the spotlight thus far during this hasty election. 

The issue was kicked off by Charles, an 11-year-old from Saint-Clet, Quebec, who asked, “What are you going to do to reduce fossil fuels in Canada?” 

The debate’s moderator, Patrice Roy, offered a helpful, if depressing, recap before he started the section devoted to climate change: “Mr. O’Toole, you want to reduce emissions by 30 percent. Mr. Trudeau, 40 percent. Ms. Paul, 60 percent. Mr. Singh and Mr. Blanchet: 50 percent,” Roy said, running through their planned carbon emission reductions over 2005 levels. “The reality is that, over 24 years, no target set by the government of Canada has been attained.”

The Liberals

Roy turned the question to Trudeau: “How can people have confidence in you?”

Trudeau was quick to tout his own record. “According to our experts and scientists, we’re already on track to hit the targets we set in Paris five years ago,” the Liberal leader said. “That’s done. We’re proposing to go even further and go to 40 percent.”

As it stands, Ottawa’s projections do have Canada hitting that 30 percent reduction, but only by a hair. The Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank, crunched the government’s new numbers and found that Trudeau is likely to fall short of his new 40 percent target.


Yet the Climate Action Tracker, an independent assessment of countries’ environmental plans, has panned Ottawa’s action to date. “The Canadian government is at a crossroads: it could either continue with the slow implementation of an inadequate climate plan, or adopt a recovery package that accelerates the transition to a zero emissions future,” its report card for Canada says. In particular, it notes Trudeau himself pledged significant action on the climate in the last election campaign two years ago, “but has done little to deliver on this in the intervening months.”

The tracker gives Canada a grade of “insufficient.”

Trudeau, as his competitors noted, has continued to subsidize the Albertan oil industry and purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline with the goal of getting more oil sands petroleum to market. If reelected, he has pledged to cap emissions from the oil and gas sector.

But as Trudeau himself mentioned Wednesday evening, rising oil prices are likely to lead to more development from those energy companies. He said he was confident he could “demand” those companies still pursue a plan for net-zero carbon emissions.

“We are the only party with a serious and ambitious plan to fight climate change,” Trudeau said, speaking to journalists after the debate. “What we saw tonight highlighted that there’s a lot of lovely rhetoric out there but woefully few details on how we’re actually going to do the hard work.”

The Conservatives

Trudeau called out O’Toole, in particular, for being a climate laggard.

Yet the Conservative leader has pitched himself as a conservative concerned about the climate and, in turn, chastised Trudeau for consistently failing to hit his own climate targets. “Canadians deserve a leader who will deliver on their promises,” O’Toole said. He noted the “concrete” Conservative plan would keep the existing carbon tax and aim to hit those Paris targets.


The Conservatives’ plan, however, would actually lower the carbon tax: The federal minimum currently sits at $40 per ton—set to rise $15 per year, until 2030 when it hits $170. O’Toole is promising, in his platform, that the tax would go down to $20, before rising to $50, “but no further.”

What’s more, the Conservatives have made it clear they plan to continue and even expand oil and gas development in the West, effectively increasing CO2 emissions.

Paul Journet, columnist at La Presse, asked O’Toole the pertinent question: “How can we consume more and pollute less?”

Core to O’Toole’s carbon reduction strategy is a plan to return the money Canadians pay in carbon taxes right back to them. As his platform explains, “Canadians will pay into their Personal Low Carbon Savings Account each time they buy hydrocarbon-based fuel.”

That savings account will be used, as he explained in the debate, to buy green and low-carbon products—to help families “make decisions to lower their carbon footprint.”

But, as Journet pointed out, “the big winners will be families with two SUVs.”

“No, because they have to make decisions for green purchases,” O’Toole responded.


Of the three major federal leaders, the NDP comes with the most aggressive set of carbon emission targets.

The problem is, Singh’s missing a plan on how to get there.


Singh has pledged to scrap subsidies for oil and gas companies—some of which, however, are federally funded programs to help those companies reduce their CO2 emissions—and remove an exemption in the carbon tax regime for big polluters. For all his talk about ending subsidies to energy companies, Singh was asked repeatedly if he would scrap the Trans Mountain pipeline, but wouldn’t commit to doing so.

Singh has pledged to use carbon budgeting, meaning his prospective government would have to account for possible emission increases caused by its policies and compensate for them. He would also implement a carbon border adjustment, which would slap a tariff on goods coming into the border to match the domestic carbon tax.

But promised “big investments” in green energy and public transit came without firm numbers. More details are likely to come when the party unveils its costed platform on Saturday.

Even still, the NDP’s climate platform has been vague on how it will get to that 50 percent target. When VICE World News asked Singh after the debate how he plans on getting there, he called his plan “strong” and “bold” but again refused to provide details.

The Greens, and the Bloc

Neither Paul nor Blanchet—barring an unthinkable plot twist—will be prime minister come late September. 

But both are pitching themselves as more serious than the other three on the climate, and a useful foil in Parliament to make sure those targets get hit.


“We are ready and willing to work from across party lines on this issue, because it’s not partisan,” Paul said, when asked by VICE World News about Trudeau’s record. “And I think it’s time for Mr. Trudeau to acknowledge that he does not have the ideas, does not have the plan, and working with some more Green MPs gives us a much greater likelihood of success.”

Paul’s platform is significantly clearer than the NDP’s: The Greens support raising the carbon tax by $25 per year and requiring the transportation sector transition to renewable energy faster.

“We’d stop constructing pipelines, we’d stop supporting fracking, we wouldn’t subsidize the petroleum industry,” Paul said. 

Blanchet, meanwhile, called Canada a “bad student” when it comes to climate change. He wants to cap oil production and exploration—clearly not worried about the effects that would have on the Albertan economy.

“It’s impossible to reduce our carbon emissions while increasing our extraction, production, and exportation of oil,” Blanchet said, speaking to O’Toole.

But O’Toole fired back, pointing out that Blanchet, while he was Quebec’s environment minister, approved one of the most carbon-intensive projects in Quebec history without an environmental review and greenlit new oil exploration

Even still, Blanchet today is throwing the gauntlet down to whomever becomes the next prime minister: “I think a bit of courage would help.”

The one man missing from the debate stage was Maxime Bernier, leader of the far-right People’s Party of Canada, as he was excluded by the debate commission. Bernier’s party’s position, which flies in the face of a near unanimity of scientific opinion, is that man-made global warming is not real and government intervention is pointless.

The Canadian election is set for Sept. 20. Most polls show the governing Liberals and the Conservatives in a dead heat.

Follow Justin Ling on Twitter.