Environmental issues are top-of-mind for more Canadians than ever before in this year’s election. It’s an important issue to Canadians in every riding — and the parties know it.
In a Forum Research poll in July, 26 per cent of respondents said the environment was their top concern, leapfrogging the economy as the number one issue. In the 2015 election, the economy was by far the most important issue to voters.
It’s also only the second election in which all four major parties openly accept the reality of climate change as something that demands our attention. Strategies vary on how to reduce carbon emissions, but at least federally, it’s no longer a question of debating the science.
Climate change policy isn’t the only way the parties are flexing their environmental bona fides, however: conservation, transportation, and energy are on the platforms, as are lower impact but still high-profile issues like plastic pollution and green jobs.
It all makes for a lot of platforms to scroll through. So we bring you a rundown on what environmental policies the federal parties are offering Canadians in the 2019 election.
Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet; its northern reaches are warming even more quickly. That has consequences for polar bears, sure, but it’s also a threat to northern roads and communities. It’s exacerbating wildfires and a biodiversity crisis. So it’s not surprising to see the issue being taken on by the federal parties.
Justin Trudeau won on a platform in 2015 that heavily referenced climate change while promising specific solutions to that and other environmental problems. Andrew Scheer appears eager to shed the Conservative party’s reputation for environmental backwardness, while sticking to its expected business-friendly approach. Elizabeth May’s Greens are advocating for radical overhauls to the economy. And the NDP under Jagmeet Singh is advocating for more ambitious measures than the Liberals while maintaining many of the broad strokes of their plan.
(Note: we’ve decided that Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada, not to be confused with the other Maxime Bernier’s Rhinoceros Party, won’t be evaluated in this story. That might be because they are devout climate deniers and therefore irrelevant to this conversation, or it could just be because they have never cracked five per cent in the polls. We’ll keep you updated if they come up with any innovative environmental policy…)
The Liberals so far have not released their platform in full but have instead spent the summer touting and reinforcing the 50 or so specific actions they’ve taken since 2015. Chief among those is the carbon tax, which kicked in in April at $20 a tonne and will rise each year up to $50 a tonne by 2022. (Update: The Liberal Party of Canada released their climate plan on September 24).
United Nations economists say that to be effective, a carbon price will have to come much higher by 2030 — to at least $135 per tonne. The Liberals have no such plan. The carbon tax has also been criticized for being overly cautious with respect to industry, allowing for too much pollution in the name of not harming competitiveness (I wrote a whole separate explainer about that, here).
The Liberals have done other work to curb emissions, however. They’ve set a target of 30 per cent of light-duty vehicles being electric by 2030, and brought in a new fuel standard to limit the carbon content in fuels used in transportation, heating and industry.
They’ve invested billions in public transit in order to reduce the carbon footprint of transportation, but appear to have abandoned a promise to “rapidly expand” the federal fleet of electric vehicles. In their last budget, they brought in a $5,000 subsidy for new electric vehicle purchases.
The Conservatives have come late to the climate party, but they have shown up at last. The title of Andrew Scheer’s environment and climate platform, “A Real Plan,” seems to be intended as a dig at the Liberals but comes across as a marvellous self-own. Regardless, the plan is indeed real and acknowledges the reality of man-made climate change in its third paragraph.
The party has said it supports the Paris Accord, but stopped short of committing to meeting Canada’s targets.
In contrast to the carbon tax, which the Conservatives have long branded as a “tax grab” and which they plan to repeal, the Conservatives’ climate plan is intended to be consumer-friendly, depending on new technology rather than a reduction in consumption or expensive overhauls. It would require big polluters to pay into an investment fund that would then be spent on green tech. However, it’s not clear exactly how that investment would actually meet the planned reductions.
The Conservatives do not mention transit in their climate plan, but do promise to “provide regulatory support” for an LNG facility on the West Coast that they say could lower the emissions of marine transportation. They also say they will work on developing electric vehicle technology, but make no promises on that front.
A big part of the Conservatives’ plan is to help other countries lower their own emissions, which they argue can be done for cheaper in developing countries, where more emissions-intensive industries like coal-fired power plants are more common. The Conservatives have promised to scrap the Liberals’ fuel standard. The party is also pushing capture and storage, which has been developed with some success in Saskatchewan and Alberta but not rolled out yet in any large-scale way.
The Green Party has presented the most radical plan for climate change of any party. It is symbolically heavy on urgency — for instance, establishing a non-partisan “survival cabinet” that would have the same grave mandate as a wartime cabinet — and includes the most ambitious measures to cut emissions seen yet on the federal level. The party proposes doubling Canada’s emissions reduction targets, and would raise the carbon tax as high as the United Nations says it needs to be, to $130 a tonne by 2030.
The Greens promise to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, ban fracking and oil imports and eliminate coal and natural gas by 2030. The latter has been criticized, along with their plan to retrofit every building in Canada to be carbon neutral, as not feasible within that timeline. Currently fossil fuels make up 20 per cent of Canada’s electricity generation, with huge regional disparities, and vacating every home in the country for retrofits would entail a scale of displacement without precedent in Canada. (Party leader Elizabeth May likened the retrofits to a WWII-level challenge but it’s also a major part of the Greens’ energy strategy — see below.)
The Greens are also planning mitigation measures, to “prepare for those levels of climate crisis we can no longer avoid,” according to the party’s platform. Those include fortifying dykes and dams against flooding, buying water bombers and assisting those who work in sectors that will be first affected by climate change.
The Greens are the only party so far to mention rail, which they say would get new investment. The Green Party would require that all new cars sold in Canada be electric by 2030. They would increase bus service to rural areas, purchase electric buses, make employer-provided bus passes tax free and add to low-emissions transportation in cities such as bike lanes and pedestrian infrastructure. The party would also oppose expansion of infrastructure that enables urban sprawl.
The New Democratic Party plans to maintain the carbon price set out by the Liberals until 2022, with a few tweaks. The party would remove the additional exemptions the Liberals added to their carbon price for heavy polluters, making them work harder to remain competitive internationally. Rebates on the carbon tax would be changed; rather than being sent out to all Canadians, the rebates would no longer be sent to the wealthiest.
The NDP also promises a Canadian Climate Bank, which would provide $3 billion for low-carbon innovation. Low-interest loans would be offered for renovations, on a longer timeline than the Greens, with plans to have all housing retrofitted by 2050.
On transportation, the NDP says it will increase funding, particularly to low-emissions transit projects. It would maintain the $5,000 incentive for electric vehicle purchases while eliminating federal sales tax on them. For electric vehicles made in Canada, the NDP says it would eventually raise that incentive to $15,000. It expands on the Liberals’ seemingly broken promise to increase the federal fleet of electric vehicles, saying all government vehicles, which includes things like Canada Post trucks, will all be electric by 2025.
Energy is the root of the climate crisis: from coal-fired electrical plants to gasoline-driven cars to bunker oil-burning ships, Canadians pump a lot of carbon into the air. But our energy system causes other problems too, like the deterioration of air quality and pollution of waterways, oil spills on land and sea, and the destruction of land for hydroelectricity.
Some of the most heated political battles in recent memory in Canada are based on energy. The Trans Mountain pipeline has pitted First Nations, the federal government, two provincial governments as well as municipalities against one another, and has divided public opinion. Likewise for the now-defunct Energy East and Northern Gateway projects. And it’s not just fossil fuels: the Site C dam is an ongoing saga that is tearing apart northern B.C. (if you’re not up to date, seriously, check out the award-winning reporting by The Narwhal’s Sarah Cox on this. It’s the best around.)
Given these struggles, the parties all have their own promises to reform Canada’s energy grid — or, in the case of the Conservatives, return it to the way it was.
The NDP has set a target of powering Canada with zero-carbon electricity by 2050. The interim goal is “net carbon-free electricity” by 2030. So what’s the difference there? Net carbon-free usually refers to electricity generation that includes carbon offsets (think carbon capture, planting trees or subsidizing clean energy) — whereas zero-carbon energy would mean no carbon is produced during generation. Hope that helps.
The party would abandon the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which the Liberals bought in as-is condition for $4.5 billion but which will eventually cost nearly double that to build. In the same vein, the party would stop fossil fuel subsidies, which, Environmental Defence estimates, total $3.3 billion a year.
A final, major element of the NDP energy platform is centred around manufacturing: building components for green energy in Canada, building an interconnected smart energy grid and developing locally-owned energy projects.
The Green Party would likewise eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, and go further by divesting from fossil fuels at the federal level — an example they hope other jurisdictions would follow. The Greens would also abandon Trans Mountain, along with all other pipeline expansion, ban oil imports and support the existing tanker ban on the north coast of B.C.
The Greens oppose nuclear energy, saying it’s too costly and too risky. They plan to develop a national electricity grid plan, and transition the current electrical grid to a more efficient system. The party wants wind to make up 20 per cent of national electricity production by 2025 — a fourfold increase — as well as ramping up geothermal and solar to each bring 25 new gigawatts of electricity online. The ban on oil imports the party has suggested would switch Canada’s oil supply to one entirely dependent on Alberta, which is in line with what the Conservatives have promised for 2030.
Its boldest claim is that through retrofits and efficiency improvements, “Canada could easily reduce energy demand by 50 per cent.”
The Greens see demand for oil and gas declining, and its policies would accelerate that decline. To soften the blow to workers in the oil and gas industry, the Greens would bring in a retraining program to teach them how to work in renewables — for example, drilling wells for geothermal.
The Liberal Party, as mentioned, hasn’t released their platform. We’ll have to wait and see what they propose to do about energy next, but so far it’s been a mix of buying a pipeline, powering a natural gas production and transportation boom with “clean” energy, and not developing an energy strategy.
In 2017 the government introduced legislation to ban oil tankers off the north coast of B.C.
In January Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced federal support for Canada’s first geothermal electrical plant, in Saskatchewan.
The Conservatives propose, well, the opposite of whatever Trudeau has proposed. They would undo the tanker ban and repeal the Liberals’ Bill C-69. That controversial bill brought in new requirements for environmental assessments of major projects but is highly unpopular with certain industries, which have lobbied extensively to get rid of it.
Also on the topic of regulatory burden, the Conservatives would provide “certainty on approval timelines and schedules,” and “end foreign-funded interference in regulatory hearings.” It’s unclear if that would include silencing oil and gas companies that are foreign-owned.
Expect more opposition when the Liberal platform is out.
Land, water, wildlife and ocean conservation
The balance of protecting wildlife and its habitat from human incursion while also allowing for economic activity is a delicate one. More often than not, the needle has gone toward development in Canada, to the detriment of species at risk like Southern Resident Killer Whales, most caribou herds, as well as plant species like the whitebark pine.
The Trudeau government has made significant progress toward meeting its so-called Aichi Biodiversity targets: it pledged to protect 17 per cent of terrestrial area and inland waters, and 10 per cent of its oceans, by 2020. A flurry of big new protected areas has moved that along. But meanwhile it has continued to advance some projects, like the Trans Mountain pipeline and a new road to the Arctic coast, that would interfere with sensitive habitat.
The Conservatives included in their plan “a comprehensive update of Canada’s strategy to protect our fisheries, forests, agricultural lands, [and] tourist areas.” That would include a focus on invasive species, which can threaten native ecosystems, and controlling pests “that
pose a substantial threat to forest and aquatic health,” as well as conducting a $15 million inventory of wetlands.
As during the Harper years, the language in the Conservative plan favours species and habitats of economic importance over a more holistic approach. It promises to review how land is set aside for protection, and whether communities have enough input.
The Conservatives continue to support the Aichi targets (that calls, among other things, for 17 per cent of terrestrial areas and inland water and 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas to be conserved by 2020), which were first agreed to by the Harper government. They also supported the passage of a Liberal fisheries bill that restored habitat protections gutted by the Harper government, with minor revisions.
The centrepiece of the NDP conservation plan is to enshrine the right to a healthy environment in law through what they’re calling the Environmental Bill of Rights. It will guarantee the right to clean land, air and water, and bring in a national freshwater strategy.
They are also upping the ante on land protection: whereas the Aichi targets only extend up to 2020, the NDP wants to accelerate the protection of land and protect 30 per cent of land, freshwater and oceans by 2030. That’s nearly double the land and freshwater, and triple the amount of ocean protection that the current targets call for.
The NDP promises to use “all the tools available” under the Species At Risk Act, though not to make any changes to it. They say they will work with provinces and territories to “protect waterways under international agreements,” presumably referring to rivers like the trans-border Elk River, contaminated on the Canadian side by selenium from coal mining.
Part of the Greens’ conservation plan focuses on restoring ecosystems that have been damaged already — they would conduct an inventory of contaminated water bodies and groundwater, and work on figuring out how to clean them up, while empowering their own departments and agencies to restore aquatic ecosystems.
The Greens would also increase funding to Parks Canada and accelerate the creation of new marine protected areas and parks, with a $500 million “completion budget” intended to have the entire parks system in place by 2030. They would also end trophy hunting across Canada, while supporting other types of hunting such as Indigenous subsistence hunting and hunts of other non-threatened species.
Selection of Species at Risk would no longer be subject to cabinet but rather by the recommendation of scientists, increase funding for endangered species, and increase penalties for killing them.
Each party has taken up their own causes that are related to the environment but that don’t have direct bearing on any one of the topics above. We’ve reported on some of these big issues, from environmental law to corporate accountability to ocean plastics, but expect to hear more of these sexy, sexy issues arise throughout the election.
Among the Liberal Party’s side-projects has been plastics: a plan to start banning single-use plastics starting around 2021, committing $100 million to reducing plastic waste in developing countries, and banning microbeads in cosmetics and other products.
The NDP wants to intensify the Liberals’ approach to plastics, by banning single-use plastics by 2022. They also want to provide training and re-training for people affected by climate action and encourage “local food hubs” while reducing food waste and protecting pollinator health.
The Conservatives, sticking to their push for private solutions to environmental issues, want to issue a “green patent credit” for eco-friendly technologies. They would modernize air quality regulations. They would also re-establish a policy advisory panel made up of hunters, fishers and conservation groups.
The Greens have a plan to bring in a youth-driven “Community and Environment Service Corps,” which would create 160,000 minimum wage jobs for young people to work in climate mitigation, environmental rehabilitation, and other similar projects across the country. They would also develop laws to will allow non-Canadians to sue Canadian corporations over violations of “basic human, environmental, or labour rights in their own countries.”
So there you have it. The environment is a major part of this year’s election, and the parties are all going to be jockeying for your vote on this issue. Whether it’s the Conservatives’ industry-led approach, the Liberals’ record of restoring protections and establishing new protected areas, the New Democrats’ promises to take the Liberal plan ever further, or the Greens’ promises to make drastic changes, one of these strategies will have to win out.
Watch for splashy new environmental announcements as the election goes on — and watch this space for analysis.
And since you’re here, we have a favour to ask. Our independent, ad-free journalism is made possible because the people who value our work also support it (did we mention our stories are free for all to read, not just those who can afford to pay?).
As a non-profit, reader-funded news organization, our goal isn’t to sell advertising or to please corporate bigwigs — it’s to bring evidence-based news and analysis to the surface for all Canadians. And at a time when most news organizations have been laying off reporters, we’ve hired eight journalists in less than a year.
Not only are we filling a void in environment coverage, but we’re also telling stories differently — by centring Indigenous voices, by building community and by doing it all as a people-powered, non-profit outlet supported by more than 2,200 members.
The truth is we wouldn’t be here without you. Every single one of you who reads and shares our articles is a crucial part of building a new model for Canadian journalism that puts people before profit.
We know that these days the world’s problems can feel a *touch* overwhelming. It’s easy to feel like what we do doesn’t make any difference, but becoming a member of The Narwhal is one small way you truly can make a difference.
We’ve drafted a plan to make this year our biggest yet, but we need your support to make it all happen.
If you believe news organizations should report to their readers, not advertisers or shareholders, please become a monthly member of The Narwhal today for any amount you can afford.