Canada’s friendliest province — unless you’re the climate
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It’s 11,000 words on 60 pages, teems with glossy colour photographs and begins with a request to “consider the environment before printing this document.”
Last week, federal Conservative party leader Andrew Scheer released “A Real Plan to Protect Our Environment,” billed as a blueprint for reducing Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions and strengthening environmental protections, “without taking money out of Canadians’ pockets.”
An accompanying video featured Scheer strolling along a forested path in Stanley Park telling viewers “climate change is a global problem requiring a global solution” and taking aim at the Trudeau government’s “tax grab” — the much-maligned carbon tax.
The Conservative’s environment plan, Scheer explained, focuses on “big polluters, not commuters” and “technology not taxes.”
Catchy phrases aside, what exactly do those 60 pages say? And how realistic is Scheer’s “real plan?” The Narwhal dives in.
The plan has three planks: “Green Technology, Not Taxes,” “A Cleaner and Greener Natural Environment,” and “Taking the Climate Change Fight Global.”
The green technology section expands on Scheer’s favourite bugbear: the “failed Trudeau carbon tax.”
The plan says the carbon tax has failed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, pointing out that Canada is falling behind in meeting its Paris Agreement pledge to cut emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
“It [the carbon tax] hasn’t worked in British Columbia,” Scheer told Global News. “Emissions went up and it stopped being revenue-neutral.”
But UBC political science professor Kathryn Harrison said peer-reviewed studies show B.C.’s carbon tax has reduced consumption of transportation and home heating fuels and increased purchases of fuel-efficient vehicles. The studies also show the tax has not harmed economic competitiveness, she pointed out.
“There’s lots of good evidence that the carbon tax has reduced B.C.’s emissions below what they would have been,” Harrison told The Narwhal. “[But] it is still the case that B.C.’s emissions have only levelled off.”
(Notably, that’s before a huge spike in B.C. emissions from the LNG Canada project, which will ship fracked natural gas to Kitimat for export.)
A revenue neutral tax means that all of the revenue earned via the tax is returned to taxpayers via other tax cuts and rebates. In B.C.’s case, the carbon tax was originally offset with equivalent decreases in corporate and personal income taxes, as well as a new tax credit for low-income earners.
But those tax cuts haven’t kept pace with steady carbon tax increases, meaning that B.C.’s carbon tax is no longer revenue neutral.
Instead of a carbon tax, Scheer’s climate plan puts many of its eggs in a green technology basket. A green home tax credit, a green patent credit, a green technology and innovation fund and a green hub for innovators are among a flurry of promises.
But the plan sidesteps the math, failing to provide estimates of how much Canada’s emissions would drop with all those green goodies.
“I think it is a plan that is designed to appeal to a subset of voters who want to be convinced that Canada can step up and do its part without actually doing anything,” said Harrison, who studies environmental, climate and energy policy.
“It’s devoid of detail.”
The plan would set emissions targets for major emitters, defined as companies that emit more than 40 kilotonnes of carbon a year, down from the current 50 kilotonnes.
Companies that exceed limits would be required to invest a set amount of money for every excess tonne in what Scheer, in the Stanley Park video, called “home grown emissions-reducing technologies” — which he said could then be shared with the world’s highest-emitting countries to lower global emissions.
But once again there are no estimates of how much Canada’s emissions would drop with the new targets, no analysis explaining why the plan really is Canada’s “best chance” to meet the Paris targets, as Scheer claims, and only a vague trust-me assertion that future green technology developed in Canada will reduce global emissions.
“At this time we need political leaders who are going to put forward more detail and make the case to voters for what their plan can accomplish, what it’s going to cost and why their plan is better than the other parties,” Harrison said. “And I don’t think the Scheer plan has done that.”
The “Cleaner and Greener Natural Environment” section of the plan claims the Conservatives will “protect air, water, land and wildlife.”
But again, the devil is in the details and details are scant.
There is no mention of a ban on single-use plastics, for instance. Earlier this month, the Trudeau government announced a ban on single-use plastics — which could include straws, cutlery and bags — starting in 2021 at the earliest.
And the plans says only that Scheer will “prioritize funding for environmental compliance and enforcement” of Canada’s environmental laws. It makes no mention of repealing Bill C-69, legislation vociferously opposed by the Conservatives.
The bill, passed last week after the Senate attempted to make sweeping changes, revamps Canada’s environmental laws after they were gutted by the former Conservative government.
A Scheer government would lead a conservation assessment “to identify the best opportunities for expanding our protected area network, including parks, marine protected areas, national wildlife areas and migratory bird sanctuaries,” the plan says.
Canmore-based scientist Laura Coristine said she did “a double take” when she read about plans for a conservation assessment.
“It’s a nice aspirational statement,” said Coristine, whose research focuses on biodiversity and climate change.
“But it slows down the process. It’s like reinventing the wheel. It simply says we’re going to go back to where we were five years ago and do it all over again.”
In May 2018, Coristine and 16 other Canadian and international scholars sent a policy brief to Scheer, other opposition leaders, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, outlining how Canada can prioritize the protection of areas with the greatest potential to reduce biodiversity loss.
A huge amount of work on identifying the best opportunities for designating additional protected areas also occurred through the Pathway to Canada Target 1 process, a new approach to conservation in Canada that aims to meet a commitment under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, Coristine noted.
The commitment requires signatory countries to legally designate 17 per cent of land and inland waters as “protected areas” closed to industrial activity.
As of 2017, Canada had protected a mere 10.6 per cent of its land and inland waters, compared to 54 per cent in Venezuela, 30 per cent in Brazil and 17 per cent in Australia.
The Conservative’s plan promises $15 million over three years to complete a national wetland inventory and to “study the feasibility” of an incentives-based program to protect critical wetland habitats.
It also says the Conservatives will protect migratory birds but only mentions waterfowl — in the context of hunting them — and omits any details about how a Scheer government would tackle the country’s growing number of at-risk species.
More than 600 plant and animal species are listed under the federal Species at Risk Act, with many more species listed in individual provinces and territories.
“The loss of species, loss of biodiversity, wildlife that is disappearing from our landscape — that is a huge and fundamental issue that Canada needs to address,” Coristine said. “To not reference it is problematic.”
Coristine pointed out that Canada and the rest of the world face two big issues right now: climate change and loss of biodiversity.
“An action plan should really be about what we are going to do.”
And then there’s “Taking the Fight Against Climate Change Global,” a euphemism for side-stepping responsibility for our own carbon emissions.
“The World Needs More Canadian Energy” says a t-shirt on a man chatting with Scheer in a photo.
Another photo features Scheer watering a tree he has planted at a refinery in Jamnagar, India.
“At the end of the day if there are increased CO2 measures in other countries we don’t do the world any favours,” Scheer told Global News.
“Molecules of CO2 don’t have passports. They don’t worry about borders. Let’s realize that If we bring in a carbon tax and chase away jobs and investment only to see that pop up in other countries we’re not going to do the planet a favour.”
The Conservative plan states that Canadian energy can be used “to replace dirtier foreign energy sources,” pointing out that natural gas, such as LNG, is a cleaner source of fuel than coal.
“By promoting LNG, we can support a key driver of the Canadian economy and reduce global emissions at the same time,” the plan says.
Harrison said the argument is “very selective” because it picks the cleaner fossil fuel, “not the dirtier fossil fuels that we’re currently exporting in greater quantities.”
“It’s also a problematic argument because the fact is that the Paris agreement as it’s currently written … assigns responsibility to the countries in which the emissions occur.”
There is also much debate about whether LNG is indeed cleaner than coal when methane emissions from fracking and liquefaction are added to the equation.
“It’s possible for liquefied natural gas to be a cleaner fuel than coal but it’s not automatic,” Harrison pointed out. “It depends on the details of how that natural gas is produced and especially on methane leakage.”
As for the Canadian technology and products that will ratchet down greenhouse gas emissions in other countries — which the Conservatives would brand as ‘Clean Canada’ — the plan states that Canada is a “global leader in carbon capture and storage technology.”
It posits that if China fitted just 100 of its 3,000 coal plants with carbon capture and storage it could eliminate the equivalent of nearly half of the emissions produced by Canada’s economy.
Yet carbon and capture storage (CCS) experiments in Canada have been uneconomical and the future of such technology is highly uncertain, Harrison pointed out.
“It’s hard to understand why CCS would be the way to go when the price of renewables has declined so dramatically in recent years and when it hasn’t been successful despite lots of investments in Canada [and] in Australia at the scale we would need at this point.”
Harrison said it would be prudent for Canada to start to transition its economy away from fossil fuels and towards lower carbon industries, so we will be less vulnerable as other countries move away from fossil fuels.
Given the Conservatives’ focus on economic considerations, “there’s lots of economic modelling that suggests that the economic benefits of action on climate change outweigh the costs,” she said.
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