In what must be one of the shortest political honeymoons ever, the Liberals – while congratulated for their historic election win Monday night – immediately faced criticism over their climate change plans. How would the Liberals distinguish themselves from the Conservative track record on climate?

Environmental groups were quick to express concern over the Liberal’s lack of emission reduction targets and the party’s support of oil pipelines to transport tar sands crude.

The criticism underscores the urgency in the environmental community with the Paris COP 21 climate change summit talks a scant six weeks away.

The Liberals will have little time to organize Canada’s position for the international talks aimed at keeping global temperatures from rising by two degrees Celsius. That is the agreed upon standard that countries must meet in order to halt climate change from becoming even worse.

If Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is to put in a credible showing at the Paris talks, he will have to first consult with Canada’s premiers and then come up with a plan that will deliver Canada’s commitment to emissions reductions in line with other global leaders, and that will somehow appease environmental groups as well.

Cautious optimism expressed over Liberal climate change action

While all of that sounds next to impossible, environmental leaders are hopeful.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Climate Action Network executive director Louise Comeau told National Observer.

Comeau sent a letter Tuesday morning to the prime minister elect, asking him to call a First Ministers’ meeting ahead of Paris in order to shape a robust package to present at Paris.

Climate Action Network suggests that Canada should support including a long-term, 100 per cent renewable energy goal by 2050 within the Paris agreement; commit to setting a 2025 target for lowering emissions to bring Canada in line with the U.S.; enshrine the emissions reduction targets within law; and take more action before 2020 to reduce emissions.

“It will take some real work. It should be done. We believe it can be done and then we should go to Paris and lay out to the best that we can with the time available what it is we will do,” Comeau said.

Liberal campaign promises around climate change and clean energy included the development of a pan-Canadian framework to address climate change; a $2-billion Low Carbon Economy Trust to fund projects that reduce carbon pollution; and investment of an addition $100-million annually in clean technology research and development.

The Liberal MP for Ottawa South, David McGuinty, who has previously spoken with National Observer about the party’s environmental platform, could not be reached for comment.

New Liberal government has its work cut out for it

In a blog post Tuesday morning, Anthony Swift, director of the Canada Project, for the U.S.-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said that after nine years under Stephen Harper “there is no question that the new Liberal government has its work cut out for it.”

Swift opined that the earliest tests for the Liberals will be around the environment. “With Canada’s role in climate change and climate action front and center, and carbon-intensive tar sands development a key driver of many of Canada’s environmental issues, the international community will be focusing its attention on what Canada’s new government can do.”

According to Swift, at a minimum pressure is already mounting on the country to set ambitious emission reduction targets and outline missing policies that will ensure those reductions are made.

Swift also raised a number of issues that are troubling many in the environmental community, including an interview with CBC in which Trudeau told the broadcaster that Canada has no immediate need for fixed national targets to address climate change.

The lack of a defined federal plan and continued reliance on a patchwork of provincial targets would slow the reduction of emissions, Swift argues. He added: “The post-election consultation period also opens up the possibility that Canada will arrive at the crucial 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris with no firmly-committed carbon reduction target – an outcome even worse than the unambitious INDC put forward by the previous government.”

The other major issue for many is Trudeau’s support of oil pipelines such as Keystone XL along with ambivalence over Energy East, both of which would carry Alberta tar sands crude. It is now taken as common wisdom that to achieve the Paris targets it is conditional upon major oil assets – including the tar sands – being stranded and left in the ground.

Canada can lead in areas of climate and clean energy

Tim Gray, executive director of Toronto’s Environmental Defence, told the National Observer: “It’s impossible to expand the tar sands to the level that would put oil in all those pipelines and meet any kind of rational emission target for Canada. So for those things, the math does not work.

“They’re going to have to make some decisions about who they’re actually going to be, because you can be both of those things.”

With regards to Paris, Gray said it’s essential Trudeau show up in Paris with a credible emissions reduction plan, even if it’s just in broad strokes.

“I think just showing up and saying, ‘We care about climate’ won’t be enough. I think they recognize that and I think the provinces are keen – or at least a significant number of them.”

The executive director of B.C.-based Clean Energy Canada, Merran Smith, acknowledged that turning around the economy and moving it off of fossil fuels won’t happen overnight. But she said now Canada has a prime minister elect who is committed to building a clean infrastructure.

“This government has really shown that it understands the economic and environmental opportunities of clean energy and of taking action on the climate stage,” Smith said. “We are looking forward to seeing some real ambition, putting clean energy up front and centre as part of their strategy.”

Smith said she believes Canada can lead in the areas of climate and clean energy and that the country now has someone who will help Canada do that. “I look forward to Canada getting back into the international arena as a country that’s going to do something good.”