Our continuing coverage of Canada’s federal election September 20 carries the #Elxn44 tag. You can use the search engine on our site to find other stories in the series.
- Concise headlines. Original content. Timely news and views from a select group of opinion leaders. Special extras.
- Everything you need, nothing you don’t.
- The Weekender: The climate news you need.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole pledged to move boldly backwards on Canada’s emissions reduction target, the fossil lobby published its campaign wish list, and the climate crisis held its spot as a top concern for Canadian voters as the federal election moved into its third week.
Speaking in Newfoundland on Friday, O’Toole said he would jettison the Trudeau government’s international commitment to cut Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions 40 to 45% by 2030, and return to the Harper-era target of 30%, in search of a carbon target the country can achieve without “crippling” the economy.
“In April, we launched our plan on climate change. It will meet the Paris objectives. It’s not changing the Paris objectives. We will meet the Paris objectives that were actually set by the tail end of the Conservative government and signed onto by the Liberal government,” he said.
Blowing Up the Paris Deal
The small problem for the Conservative leader is that the Paris climate agreement obliges signatories to continually increase their commitment to faster, deeper emission cuts. The new target, announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at President Joe Biden’s climate leaders’ summit in April, has since been filed with the United Nations and enshrined in law under the new Canadian Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act.
“If the government misses that target, it must—according to the new law—produce a report outlining the reasons why it failed and laying out a plan to meet the target,” CBC notes.
While targets under the Paris deal are voluntary, with no binding consequences for countries that break their promises, there’s still an “impact to their international reputation,” the national broadcaster adds.
With this year’s UN climate conference, COP 26, opening just five weeks after the September 20 vote, “There [would] be many questions around why the new Canadian government is doing this, less than a year after raising the targets,” said Eddy Pérez, international climate diplomacy manager at Climate Action Network-Canada. “It could create a lot of diplomatic uncertainty and represent an embarrassment for O’Toole to have to deal with that on its first international multilateral meeting.”
Experts told iPolitics that any effort to scale back a country’s target would violate Article 4(3) of the Paris accord. A “Conservative government could actually update the one the Trudeau government just set,” said University of Ottawa law professor Thomas Burelli. “However, according to the Paris Agreement, it should always be a progression [toward faster, deeper carbon emission cuts] compared to what you previously submitted.”
While targets under the Paris deal had to be non-binding to bring as many countries as possible onboard, the agreement still sets up “very strong normative expectations” to abide by its terms, added University of Toronto law professor Jutta Brunnée.
“If Canada were to [act on O’Toole’s promise], it would not violate an obligation, because the NDC itself is not legally binding,” she explained. “But it would be contrary to the spirit of the Paris Agreement,” and “a challenge to the entire logic of the Paris Agreement, because the logic is progression over time. So it’s not something that one should take lightly.”
New Democrats are campaigning on a 50% GHG reduction target by 2030, while the Green Party is talking about 60%.
Fossils Demand ‘Investment’ (Using Obsolete Data)
Not to be deterred by international agreements—much less by wildfires, heat domes, and droughts on the home front—the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) was not at all shy about issuing its campaign demands last week. The fossil lobby’s campaign site positions “Canada’s natural gas and oil industry” as a “primary engine in the country’s economy” that can help drive economic recovery, champion reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and be “part of the collective global challenge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”, while meeting the future demand it predicts for its carbon-intensive product.
In a statement on the page, CAPP President and CEO Tim McMillan touts the “significant investment in advanced technologies and knowledge sharing” that reduced the industry’s emissions per barrel by 20% between 2008 and 2019. He doesn’t mention that production increased far more over that period, making fossil fuels the source of one-quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas pollution. Nor that the industry’s focus is strictly on the carbon pollution it emits to extract and process its product, not the 80% of the emissions that enter the atmosphere after a barrel of oil reaches its end user.
“CAPP and our members call upon Canadians and our leaders to seize the opportunity to unleash the economic and environmental power of Canada’s natural gas and oil industry,” McMillan said. “To be resilient and sustainable, recovery will be a multi-year process based on robust economic activity. It is crucially important for the incoming federal government to make policy decisions that position Canada for success in an ultra-competitive international investment market. Investment supports industry growth and is vital to developing and commercializing technologies that reduce emissions, water use, and more.”
While McMillan doesn’t explicitly demand continuing federal subsidies for the industry, one of his highest-profile members covered that base earlier this month. Less than a day before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest, most dire assessment of the global climate emergency, Cenovus Energy CEO Alex Pourbaix let it be known—apparently without a hint of irony—that he expects Canadian taxpayers to shell out up to C$52.5 billion to help his industry get the carbon out of its operations.
“It’s going to take tens of billions of dollars over 30 years to decarbonize [our oil] industry,” Pourbaix said.
Energy Mix readers responded a week later with their own, rather more practical ideas on how much decarbonization a $50-billion investment could buy.
The CAPP page cites the International Energy Agency’s 2020 World Energy Outlook to make its case that “global demand for both natural gas and oil is set to reach record levels, and these sources of energy will be needed for decades to come.” Unfortunately for CAPP, the IEA itself took a dramatic step back from that position in mid-May, with a 1.5°C pathway that projects oil demand falling 75% and gas demand dropping 55% between 2020 and 2050.
“Beyond projects already committed as of 2021, there are no new oil and gas fields approved for development in our pathway, and no new coal mines or mine extensions are required,” the IEA wrote at the time. “The unwavering policy focus on climate change in the net-zero pathway results in a sharp decline in fossil fuel demand, meaning that the focus for oil and gas producers switches entirely to output—and emissions reductions—from the operation of existing assets.”
“It’s not a model result,” analyst Dave Jones of the clean energy think tank Ember told Bloomberg Green. “It’s a call to action.”
“Big Oil and Gas has just lost a very powerful shield!” wrote Oil Change International Senior Campaigner David Tong.
Curiously, while the fossil lobby petitions federal parties for support even more lavish than the minimum $18 billion it received last year, it’s wasted little time complaining to business media about the ill treatment it says it has endured from the Trudeau government. “The industry is hoping for policy certainty and a concrete discussion about the future of the sector, but expects to become a target for tough talk about new policies,” Postmedia columnist Chris Varcoe wrote August 18, just days after the election was called.
“The debate will be on obviously climate change,” industry analyst Jeremy McCrea told Varcoe. “If oil and gas can stay under the radar and not be the bogeyman that it’s been in prior elections, a lot of these executives will be happy.”
“I am not expecting much, other than the continual rhetoric…with the blame placed on fossil fuel energy,” complained Whitecap Resources CEO Grant Fagerheim, who said he would much prefer to see the campaign dissect “strategic policy issues” like carbon capture and storage technologies…which will need much of the financial support Pourbaix is demanding if it’s to have any hope of being financially viable at scale.
“I was appalled the way it played out three years ago [actually, two years ago, but it feels like at least three, doesn’t it?—Ed.], to be a piñata and not even have an honest conversation, an honest dialogue, about the importance of the energy sector,” Alberta Energy Minister and former pipeline exec Sonya Savage told Varcoe.
The odd sense that one of the country’s most politically influential industries is being victimized carried into a column late last week by the Financial Post’s Geoff Morgan, in which fossils said Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s more recent critiques of the banking sector wouldn’t likely bring them much relief. “Not for one moment do I believe that he has shifted away from Big Oil, in particular, the oilsands,” SAF Group principal and chief market strategist Dan Tsubouchi told Morgan in an email, predicting that fossil execs will sustain “additional hits” from Liberal campaign messaging in the weeks ahead.
Climate Emergency Holds Voters’ Attention
With several other issues dominating the narrative during the second week of the election campaign, polling and opinion analysis still placed the climate emergency and the response from federal parties at or near the top of voters’ list of concerns. CBC’s Vote Compass site found that environment, including climate change and global warming, was the top priority for 32% of the 34,000 voters who weighed in in the last week, and for 27% of respondents in the Greater Toronto Area, the national broadcaster reports.
“One would think in an election launched in the middle of a pandemic, the pandemic itself would be the number one issue,” said Clifton van der Linden, founder and CEO of Vox Pop Labs, CBC’s Vote Compass partner. “The fact that the environment stands out so prominently at the moment should speak to how seriously voters are taking environmental issues in 2021.”
“Climate change has been completely broken out of its environmental pigeonhole,” Rick Smith, president of the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, told The Canadian Press. “For many more Canadians than before, climate change is about the health and well-being of their families right now, as opposed to some distant concern at some point in the future.”
The Angus Reid Institute had climate as the top issue for 18% of all voters, with 41% of that group planning to vote for the Liberals and 36% leaning toward the New Democrats. A Navigator survey conducted August 6-12 identified climate as the top issue for 15% of voters, behind the pandemic at 27% and a mix of economic concerns that collectively drew 26%.
Angela Carter, associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, noted that climate was already a top priority in the 2019 election—but this year, there’s a difference.
“There is a growing awareness that the climate crisis is, of course, also a health crisis,” she told CBC. “And we have leaders, international leaders, Mark Carney is one of these, at the United Nations who said that the climate crisis in 50 years is going to look like a COVID pandemic every single year.”
Climate Emergency as Wedge Issue
On Corporate Knights, Sussex Strategy Group Senior Counsel Shawn McCarthy says climate change will show up as a “wedge issue” on the campaign trail, even if it didn’t much look that way in the first two weeks. Though Conservative Leader O’Toole has made an effort to close the gap between his party’s 2019 climate platform and its position today, there are still “yawning differences among the parties with regard to climate ambition,” he writes. “There continue to be deep cleavages in terms of how they would treat the oil and gas sector, which is responsible for 25% of Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.”
While the Trudeau government is vulnerable on its continuing support for the fossil industry, not least its decision to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline with taxpayers’ dollars, O’Toole’s carbon target “is clearly insufficient to put the country on course for achieving net-zero status by 2050,” McCarthy says. “The Liberals will no doubt remind climate-conscious voters that the Conservatives have not endorsed the net-zero target.”
Across all the parties, he adds, “O’Toole has the least ambitious targets, while at the same time, his party lacks credibility to implement the plan” based on its reliance on identical action from the United States, Conservatives’ own deep policy divisions on whether climate change is even a thing, and the observation that “the party has oil in its DNA”.
Meanwhile, legendary CBC television anchor Peter Mansbridge weighed in on Politico’s Ottawa Playbook this week with an opinion piece from the Arctic Circle, the region where he says he began his broadcasting career in 1968.
“Most everyone in Canada’s North has trouble understanding why there are those in the south who still doubt climate change,” Mansbridge writes from a perch aboard the HMCS Harry DeWolf. “Whether they are hunters or fishers, or anyone else who depends on the land to supplement food supply and to stay in touch with their culture, all see climate change every day, and they see it close up. The sea is warmer than it was a generation ago and so sea life is different; and the animals, used to more ice, find their habitat changing and with it their migratory patterns.”
Mansbridge documents a glacier melting so fast that people can sometimes hear the water dripping, chunks of ice falling off another glacier every day, and the sea temperature at 5.6°C when it should have been closer to zero.
Elsewhere, civil society groups issued several new campaign positions over the last week, with Citizens for Public Justice releasing its 2021 election bulletin and announcing a virtual town hall this Wednesday, Evidence for Democracy launching a reprise of its 2019 Vote Science campaign, Climate Action Network-Canada publishing its election priorities, and Environmental Defence Canada recapping $18 billion in subsidies and public finance for fossil fuels in 2020.
And after screaming anti-mask protesters forced the Liberal campaign to cancel a scheduled appearance by Trudeau in Bolton, Ontario, The Georgia Straight speculated that the overt bullying might end up making the Liberal leader an object of sympathy. Veteran Parliamentary reporter Susan Delacourt said the “poisonous rage” directed at Trudeau “is woven with threads of racism, xenophobia, sexism, conspiracy theorists, and COVID/vaccine deniers. It has been emboldened by a small cottage industry of commentary that portrays a ‘woke’ Trudeau as the destroyer of all that holds the old Canada together.”
It’s been going on for years, Delacourt adds, it’s “the same kind of bile they usually hurl at women politicians,” and as both O’Toole and Singh are saying on the campaign trail, it has to stop.
“There’s an old Jerry Seinfeld joke about those detergent ads you see on TV,” Delacourt writes. “‘If you’ve got a T-shirt with a bloodstain all over it, maybe laundry isn’t your biggest problem.’ All the speculation about how the Bolton incident will affect the election campaign feels a bit to me like seeing the problem as laundry. It’s not just about politicians cleaning up their strategic act for this election, but what is causing the stain on the political fabric of this country.
“The faces of those protesters, accompanied by children chanting foul-mouthed curses at a prime minister, is not a sight that can be bleached from the memory of this campaign.
“To paraphrase that Seinfeld joke, if you have mobs of citizens openly threatening harm to Trudeau, the biggest problem isn’t Trudeau.”