Carbon Pricing, Pipelines Shape Canada’s Elections

Justin Trudeau and Catherine McKenna at COP21 in Paris, France
Photo Credit: Environment and Climate Change Canada

This October will likely be a critical election for climate politics in Canada, with Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer polling ahead of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

The election takes place at a time that a report released by Climate Change Canada finds that Canada is warming at twice the global rate. What’s more, 83 percent of Canadians are concerned about climate change, with 69 percent saying that it will be a top five issue for them at the ballot box.

Climate change is shaping up to play a major role in Canada’s elections, with oil pipelines and carbon pricing dominating the discourse.

A divided electorate

Pipelines are a divisive issue for the electorate, with 58 percent of Canadians believing that the lack of pipeline capacity constitutes a “crisis,” according to an Angus Reid poll.  

Tensions have been amplified by the proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which will ship crude oil from Alberta’s tar sands to Vancouver, British Columbia.  As it is, the pipeline has been plagued by 84 oil spills since 1961.

“An anti-pipeline campaign has been one of the key drivers of the Canadian climate movement for quite a long time,” said Catherine Abreu, Executive Director of Climate Action Network-Canada.  “Pipelines have also come to represent prosperity in the Canadian economy to a big part of the public. Conversations about pipelines really come down to climate versus the economy.”

While championing the Trans Mountain Pipeline, Trudeau has attempted to walk a fine line between fossil fuel advocates and environmental activists, promising to “protect the environment at the same time as we grow the economy.”  Scheer, on the other hand, has been a major supporter of the fossil fuel industry, calling for a coast-to-coast energy corridor.

“I will not apologize for standing up for Canada’s oil and gas workers and to defeat a government that is intent on phasing them out. Oil and gas puts food on the table for hundreds of thousands of Canadian families and I’m not going to let Justin Trudeau shut it down,” wrote Scheer on Facebook.

Trudeau’s carbon pricing policy has also been a lightning rod in this year’s elections.  The Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act (GGPPA) of 2018 imposes a carbon tax on provinces and territories that have not adopted a carbon pricing system that meets federal standards. The provinces of Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Brunswick have already mounted legal challenges to this act. If elected, Scheer has vowed to repeal the GGPPA.

The New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Green Party, polling at 18 and 11 percent respectively, offer a bold  vision for climate policy. Both parties’ leaders have been highly critical of both Trudeau’s and Scheer’s policies.  

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh seeks to cut Canadian greenhouse gas emissions by nearly half over the next decade while championing an environmental bill of rights.  Singh has even called for ending fossil fuel use in Canada.

Elizabeth May, who has led the Green Party for 13 years, unveiled a 20-point Green Climate Action Plan that aims to reduce Canada’s emissions by 60 percent below their 2005 levels by 2030.

Abreu said, “I think it will be useful to have more points on the spectrum and a greater diversity of options of what is being considered and dialogued about.”

Provincial elections

Recent elections in Ontario and Alberta delivered major wins for the fossil fuel industry, but the new premier in Quebec is going in a different direction.

In June 2018, Doug Ford led the Progressive Conservative Party to victory in Ontario’s general election to become the province’s premier. During his campaign, he railed against Trudeau’s “job-killing carbon tax.” Since taking office, Ford’s government has cancelled Ontario’s cap-and-trade system,  eliminated the office of the environmental commissioner and proposed $350 million in cuts to environment and conservation spending.

“They’ve been one of the most anti-environmental provincial governments we’ve had in generations,” said Ontario’s Green Party leader Mike Schreiner.

Alberta’s general election offered an even stronger rebuke of the climate movement.  Under Premier Jason Kenney’s leadership, the United Conservative Party won 63 of the 87 seats in the party’s Legislative Assembly, a gain of 38, while the NDP held onto the remaining 24 seats. In May, Kenney’s government introduced its first bill to eliminate Alberta’s carbon tax.

“It is very much an electorate being mobilized around an anti-climate agenda,” said Abreu about Alberta’s elections. “This is fueled in large part by the fact that Alberta is the home of Canada’s oil sands and that is a huge part of the economy of that province.  The pipeline debate burns at its highest temperatures in Alberta where most of the folks feel their future and economic well-being rests on getting pipelines built.”

Quebec also elected a conservative, Premier François Legault, but he has responded to climate concerns by vowing to reduce the province’s petroleum consumption 40 percent by 2030.

Trudeau’s mixed record

Upon assuming office in 2015, Trudeau promised to reverse the disastrous policies of his predecessor, Stephen Harper, and help Alberta find new markets for its oil. His contradictory agenda quickly made him a foe of environmentalists.

“In case anyone wondered, this is how the world ends: with the cutest, progressivest, boybandiest leader in the world going fully in the tank for the oil industry,” wrote climate activist and founder Bill McKibben in The Guardian.

Still, Trudeau and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna represent a major departure from Harper. Trudeau’s comprehensive plan, the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, seeks to price carbon, reduce emissions, grow the economy and build resistance to a changing climate.  

“This is probably the strongest government that Canada has seen in terms of comprehensive climate action,” said Abreu.  “They came after a government of Stephen Harper that did not care about climate change and they have been working really hard to make up for lost time. … We’ve generated a lot of momentum for climate action and it would be a shame to see that momentum stall out.”

Scheer, who has promised to release his climate plan by June, will likely present a watered-down alternative to Trudeau’s plan.  Scheer says his plan will be “based” on Canada’s targets under the Paris Agreement, but he has been reluctant to give many more details, while claiming that the liberals lack a “real” climate plan.

“Two years ago today, Andrew Scheer became the leader of the Conservative Party. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to celebrate — after all, he still doesn’t have a plan to fight climate change,” wrote McKenna on Twitter. “It’s time for Andrew Scheer to join Canadians in the fight against climate change.”

On the international stage

The October election will also likely play a major part in shaping Canada’s role in this year’s climate negotiations in Chile.

“This is a pretty decisive election for Canadian action on climate change and its role in the international climate regime,” said Abreu. “Under Harper, we saw a complete retreat of Canada from international climate negotiations, a defunding of climate finance, and the dropping of Kyoto. We also saw in that era a big defeat of a Liberal Party in an election over their green plan.”

The stakes are too high to go backward. Now, more than ever, fighting climate change must be a top priority.

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