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Election results show time is ripe to push Liberals on climate

“Canadians clearly want progressive policies on climate, and they need a government that's going to collaborate."
There is no Planet B.

VANCOUVER - Even though Parliament won’t look much different, some experts say Justin Trudeau’s bruised minority government has given other parties leverage to push for more ambitious climate action.

That’s in large part because the threat of an election is off the table at a time when Canadians are demanding climate action.

“No one can use the threat of ‘support me or we'll launch an election,’ that's over, that card has been played,” said Isabelle Turcotte, director of federal policy at the Pembina Institute.

Turcotte pointed to every major party having a climate plan of some kind, and the fights over whether to have a carbon tax largely settled since 2019's election as evidence Canadians are taking the climate crisis more seriously.

“Canadians clearly want progressive policies on climate, and they need a government that's going to collaborate,” she said.

That’s certainly the case being made by a number of environmental advocacy organizations like Greenpeace Canada, Environmental Defence, Équiterre, and others who have banded together under the banner of No More Delays calling on Trudeau to work across party lines to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, introduce just transition legislation, and implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

“Certainly, we need Justin Trudeau to step up and really work with other parties, but we need the other parties to step up and use their leverage,” said Julia Levin, senior program manager for climate and energy at the advocacy group Environmental Defence.

“Especially the parties that put forward ambitious proposals, we need to use their leverage on the climate crisis,” she said.

One area of focus will be the Liberal promise to accelerate the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies, but strengthening the climate accountability bill that is supposed to guide Canada to net-zero is also expected to factor into the upcoming legislative climate battles.

Turcotte said she hopes the NDP will see its opportunity to hold Liberals accountable on the climate file.

“Sometimes the NDP has been hesitant to really differentiate themselves from the Liberal Party on climate and there's a big opportunity for them here,” she said.

Turcotte highlighted a plank in the NDP platform that called for national and sectoral carbon budgets to help guide a transition to a clean economy in every corner of the country, calling them “really fundamental tools” to create the transparency and certainty needed to ensure a successful transition.

“The Liberals have a similar, but much narrower, commitment with the targets for the oil and gas sector,” she said, referring to the promise to cap emissions and then ramp them down over time.

“Let's build on that, and let's actually apply that across the board,” she said.

Though a minority government will make it harder for the Liberals to push their agenda through Parliament, being forced to work collaboratively is more likely to lead to stronger policy, says Levin.

“We saw stronger climate accountability legislation because all of the parties with progressive views on climate change were involved,” she said.

“Canada has a great history of minority (governments) working together to pass really ambitious policies, and we need that now to be applied to climate action.”

Kathryn Harrison, a University of British Columbia professor and author of Passing the Buck: Federalism and Canadian Environmental Policy, said meeting the Liberal goal of 40 to 45 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases from 2005 levels by 2030 will require a steep reduction given emissions have barely budged over that time.

With promises to reduce oil and gas emissions, decarbonize power generation, retrofit buildings on a massive scale, and other commitments, Harrison says the Liberals are likely to be busy on the bureaucratic side. 

“Regulation is slow,” she said. “I would think the Liberals –– before they can face the voters again, at least with a credible story on climate –– they're going to have to show progress on some of these things that are going to require some real hustling,” she said.

Harrison said the backdrop to this election was “25 years” of heel-dragging, where parties promised emission reductions without explaining how they would be achieved. She said 2019 was the start of that shift with the carbon price proposal.

“Even then, the Liberals were giving the impression they could deliver a 30 per cent reduction at a $50 per tonne carbon price, which no academic experts would believe for a moment,” she said.

“What's new this time is in December 2020, the Liberals put a plan on the table with a carbon price going up to $170 per tonne that really credibly could reduce emissions by 30 per cent.”

One lesson for the NDP, which was criticized for being too vague on the climate file, is that to make inroads with voters, it will need to demonstrate how it could implement its plan, according to Clean Energy Canada’s executive director Merran Smith.

“While one party lacked ambition, others made the mistake of providing too little information, putting forward ideas that were vague, unmodelled, and potentially costly,” Smith said in a statement.

“A good climate plan is one that can be implemented efficiently and effectively.”

The Sierra Club Canada Foundation echoed the call for opposition parties to step up.

“If parties want to see improvements in their performance, they are going to have to speak and act unequivocally on behalf of those who want a safe and healthy environment,” the group said in a statement.