‘Having a plan isn’t enough’: The road ahead for Canadian climate policy

TVO.org speaks with Sarah Petrevan of Clean Energy Canada about what the Liberals’ federal-election victory means for action on climate change
By Daniel Kitts - Published on Sep 29, 2021
Sarah Petrevan is policy director at Clean Energy Canada, a think tank at Simon Fraser University. (Clean Energy Canada)

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Many wondered what the point of the recent federal election was, apart from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wanting a majority government. But in terms of Canada’s action on climate change, the vote may one day be seen as very significant.

Much was made during the campaign of the Conservatives’ support for a carbon price — something they had vehemently opposed not long before. One article described the policy as “a 180-degree turn.” But the details painted a different picture: The Conservatives would have cut the current price of carbon from $40 a tonne to $20 a tonne. They would then have eventually raised the tax to a maximum of $50 a tonne. By contrast, the Liberals plan to raise it to $170 a tonne by 2030.

Under the Liberals, then, Canada would be emitting 73 fewer megatonnes of carbon dioxide a year by 2030 than under the Conservative plan. To put that amount in perspective, 73 megatonnes is roughly what Saskatchewan — a petroleum-producing province — emitted in all of 2019. It’s a weight equivalent to about 620 CN Towers. It’s not nothing.

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To get a better sense of what the Liberal victory means for climate action going forward, TVO.org speaks with Sarah Petrevan, policy director for the think tank Clean Energy Canada.

TVO.org: Did Canada's efforts to tackle climate change dodge a bullet because the Conservatives lost?

Sarah Petrevan: [Laughs] That's a very loaded question. First of all, this election was unique in that every party learned from the 2019 election, and they knew that the only way that you were going to get a path to power in this country was if you had a credible climate plan. So the Conservatives brought forward a climate plan that didn't take issue with much of the pillar platform items that you saw in other parties’ platforms — namely, the carbon price. But there remained that question throughout the campaign as to whether or not the Conservatives were truly genuine about their desire to have a climate plan, because of the fractious nature within the Conservative Party. There were enough grey areas in the Conservative platform that might have brought into question whether Canada would have maintained the trajectory of progress that it's currently on had the party won.

It's certainly questionable whether climate progress would have been maintained under the Conservatives. And I would argue that there was enough science to show that it likely wouldn't have been. We might have maintained some level of commitment around climate change, but it would be decidedly less than what we have now.

Sarah Petrevan and other experts discuss the federal parties’ climate change plans on The Agenda on Sept. 16.

TVO.org: On the one hand, the Conservatives did have a climate-change plan and carbon pricing. On the other hand, the party’s targets were much less ambitious than those of the other parties. Should climate-conscious voters be more pleased that the party did campaign on a climate plan, or should they be more concerned that the party maybe doesn't always seem sincere when it says it takes climate change seriously?

Petrevan: I think voters have to be concerned about these things, because having a plan isn't enough. Like we talked about on The Agenda, having a target isn't enough: you have to have a good target and a good plan to get there. The Conservatives fell down because they didn't have a good target. And there were some major questions around their plan. And I think that that was definitely something on the minds of voters who care deeply about climate — is this the Conservatives checking a box? I think what you saw was Canadians questioning that based on the results of the election.

TVO.org: In fairness to the Conservatives, an expert analysis by Mark Jaccard of Simon Fraser University did give the Conservatives better marks on the achievability of their climate plan compared to those of  the NDP and the Green party. But, at the same time, he ranked the Liberal climate-change plan as clearly the best among the parties. How strong a plan is the Liberal plan in your view?

Petrevan: The Liberals had the greatest ambition and the strongest plan to get there. The Conservative plan might have been achievable, but it was also a less ambitious plan. And what we need right now is ambition. You can't measure ambition on its own, which is why the NDP and Green plans fell down. Sure, they had more ambition, but they had no plan to get there. The Liberal plan was the best because it had the greatest ambition combined with the ability to actually achieve it. And that's what matters most.

TVO.org: So Canadians have elected a Liberal minority government that has what you and other experts say is a pretty strong climate-change plan. What major questions or gaps do the Liberals still need to address when it comes to their strategy?

Petrevan: Laying a plan out and a platform is one thing; implementing it is a totally different thing. They do not have an easy road ahead of them, from bringing in a zero-emission-vehicle mandate to putting caps on oil and gas emissions. And they only have a minority. These are not light areas of policy. These are deep, detailed regulatory approaches that the government is going to have to navigate, and it is made more challenging by a minority-government situation.

TVO.org: The Liberals do have enough votes to get their legislation passed if they have the support of the NDP, and the NDP seems to be a party that's very concerned about climate change. So one might assume that climate-change legislation could be very easy to pass in this coming Parliament. How fair is it to make that assumption?

Petrevan: I wouldn't count my chickens before they hatch. The NDP has a number of interests that they're trying to think about as they consider their electoral prospects going forward. They did not come out strongly on oil and gas emissions in their platform the way that the Liberals did. They kind of danced around the issue, frankly, with some vague language around oil and gas subsidies, but they didn't really come out and say what they would do differently. Also, in a minority-government situation, they're going to be looking for concessions for things that NDP voters may want to see, and that may be different than what the Liberals want to get through. So I think that there could definitely be co-operation in principle, but I also think the NDP is not going to give them a blank cheque.

TVO.org: As you of course know, in about five weeks, countries are meeting in Glasgow for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26. How do Canada’s climate-change commitments look going into that conference?

Petrevan: We do have a higher target than we did. It's not as high as the United States or the European Union. But, generally, Canada is showing a level of ambition. I think now we're saying, as a country, that we're interested in looking at things like a cap on oil and gas, that we are interested in economic transition, that we are interested in purchasing policies to ensure that what we're importing is clean. These are policies that you are seeing other climate-leading jurisdictions do. I personally feel like Canada is in a good position going into COP 26.

TVO.org: We have a government in Canada that seems to have a decent climate-change plan. We have a U.S. president that seems committed to climate action, and we have China taking what is at least a modest step back from helping to build coal-fired generating plants. How optimistic are you that the world is moving in a positive direction on this issue?

Petrevan: Depends on the day. Some days, I feel tremendously optimistic about what leaders in the world are doing; countries, particularly in Europe, and even in the U.K., are digging down into the details of some really tough policy that is going to have to be put in place, not only to reduce emissions, but also to help the global economy through the transition. And then other days, I look at how woefully inadequate the funding is for third-world countries to help them adopt climate-change ambition. I look at China, and I say, yes, you're stopping funding coal abroad, but yet you're still scaling it up domestically, and I feel less optimistic. I think it's true for anybody who works in this area of policy that it really is a wave of up and down.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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