The Conservative Party of Canada's forthcoming plan to tackle climate change will be revealed "well before the election" set for October, says its environment critic.
Still, with six months until Canadians go to the polls, Conservative MP Ed Fast won’t reveal much about how Leader Andrew Scheer's party plans to bring pollution down to “near-zero” by mid-century, as Canadian scientists concluded is necessary in an unprecedented report published this week.
Canada’s Changing Climate, a peer-reviewed report released April 1 that involved dozens of government and academic authors, showed that the country is heating up at double the average rate of the planet, with Northern Canada at triple the rate. The change in climate is heightening the risks of heat waves, wildfires, floods and declining freshwater availability, the report found.
It said continued warming was inevitable, but how much Canada continues to warm would be directly related to how much of the heat-trapping carbon pollution that comes from burning fossil fuels like oil, natural gas and coal gets released into the atmosphere.
Fast called the climate report "sobering" and said most Canadians accept that climate change is real, that it is a global problem and that "Canada can make a really significant contribution" to cutting carbon pollution.
But when asked how his party would make those pollution cuts, particularly since it has promised to scrap the Trudeau government's carbon tax, Fast referred to technological fixes.
“I’m not going to tell you which broad-based technologies we will be highlighting in our plan," Fast told National Observer in a wide-ranging interview on April 2. "What I can tell you is, if you want to look for an example of something that’s been touted by the international community, where Canada has global leadership, that is carbon capture and storage."
The Conservatives have promised such a plan for months. After Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford won the Ontario election in June 2018, federal MP Tony Clement, a former cabinet minister who was then a Conservative MP, predicted on election night that the party would start to reveal planks of its environment platform after it held its policy convention in Halifax in August.
(Clement has since resigned from the Conservative caucus over another issue after he admitted sending inappropriate pictures of himself to young women he met online.)
Ten months after Clement's comments, the lack of a plan has transformed into a talking point for a Liberal Party that is desperate to reverse a decline in the polls after the SNC-Lavalin affair appeared to have damaged the brand of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
On Tuesday, after explaining to his MPs why Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott were being expelled from caucus, Trudeau pivoted quickly to mocking Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's tweet picturing him filling up a van with gas.
“This fall, Canadians are facing a clear choice. Our opponents want to take us backwards. For proof, look no further than their lack of a climate change plan,” Trudeau said.
“It’s been 338 days since Andrew Scheer said he’d ‘soon’ release his plan to protect the environment. We’re still waiting. The Conservatives think that photo ops at gas stations are all they need. They say that the first thing they’ll do if elected is to make pollution free again."
Fast told National Observer he’s been developing the Conservative climate plan alongside the party. “I’m not going to comment on details of the plan — we have been working on it for quite a while. As you might expect, I am sort of taking the lead on that. I expect we will roll it out well before the election, and Canadians can judge for themselves," he said.
“We are going to let Canadians know exactly what we’re thinking of doing to address Canada’s obligations to help out with the fight against climate change. I believe that the plan that we roll out will be one that is defensible, it will be responsible, but it will not impose further taxes on an already overtaxed population.”
In the interview, Fast also punched holes in the Trudeau government’s commitment to eliminate “inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” by 2025.
That Liberal commitment followed one taken by former prime minister Stephen Harper, alongside other G20 leaders gathered in Pittsburgh in 2009, to eliminate inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.
But Fast said that if the government takes steps to "incentivize" the oil and gas sector to reduce its emissions, "most Canadians I think would agree that’s not such a bad thing.”
However the MP for the riding of Abbotsford in southern British Columbia said if he determined that clean technology companies were facing an uneven playing field in the market, he'd be in favour of "corrective measures."
Tories want to 'achieve what we promise'
Fast, who has been an MP since 2006, sat in former prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet, largely as the party's international trade minister, and has worked as the Tory environment critic opposing the governing Liberals.
At times, he has shown an instinct to get tough on polluters: last year, when a Toronto Star/Global News/National Observer investigation revealed that Canada’s refineries emitted more toxic emissions than their U.S. counterparts, Fast called it a "wake-up call" that "Canada can do better."
But he has also repeatedly been in the news criticizing Trudeau government environmental policies. When the government introduced its bill to change the law protecting bodies of water, for example, he called it a “sad day,” while he said the government's overhaul of the federal environmental assessment regime wouldn’t actually enhance environmental protection.
Asked why the Conservative plan was taking so long, Fast said the Tories want to “make sure that our plan will actually achieve what we promise, which is measurable reductions to our greenhouse gas emissions.” He then accused Trudeau over-promising and under-delivering on the environment.
“He grudgingly accepted the targets that the previous Harper government had proposed, and said he was going to not only meet those targets, but he was going to make those targets more aggressive, which he’s never done," Fast said. "Because as it turns out, every year that’s gone by since he’s been in office, Canada has fallen further and further behind in achieving its Paris targets. So we want to make sure that our plan will actually achieve what we promise which is: measurable reductions to our greenhouse gas emissions, obviously without imposing the burden of a carbon tax on Canadians.”
National Observer asked Fast what his alternative was to cut emissions if carbon pricing can’t be used. First, he responded that the government’s carbon price per tonne — the fuel charge that began April 1 is the equivalent of $20 per tonne, rising to $50 by 2022 — was too weak to achieve Canada's 2030 target.
“Nobody’s suggesting that a $50-per-tonne carbon tax is going to actually achieve our Paris targets. No, not even the Liberals are suggesting that’s going to happen,” Fast said. “So this is more, we believe, about funding a future cash cow that will be converted from being revenue-neutral, or close to revenue-neutral, to being another revenue stream for a cash-strapped government.”
Carbon capture faces a scale problem
Then, Fast made his comments about carbon capture and storage, the technology that captures waste pollution from sources like power plants before it escapes into the atmosphere, and then sends it through pipes to store underground.
“We have countries from around the world, very significant polluters, looking at that technology, inquiring about Canada’s expertise in that area. We have an opportunity to contribute global solutions to what is a global problem," he said.
Canada was a pioneer of the technology: the Boundary Dam coal plant in Saskatchewan, for instance, was the first power station to use carbon capture in 2014; Shell Canada’s Quest facility near Edmonton has been capturing some pollution from a heavy crude oil upgrader since 2015.
A related technology, called “direct air capture” that pulls pollution from ambient air, is seeing increased attention lately. Squamish, B.C. firm Carbon Engineering recently raised US$68-million from mining, oil and gas firms to commercialize.
Relying on technology is actually something that Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna has touted. In December 2018, she said technological advances would help play a role in closing the 79-million tonne pollution gap that her government’s environmental plan faces in meeting the nation’s national climate target for 2030.
But carbon capture faces a scale problem. Quest and Carbon Engineering both can process one million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, while Boundary Dam has captured 2.5 million tonnes since it began.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), meanwhile, has said carbon removal technologies will need to take between 100 billion and one trillion tonnes of CO2 out of the air over the coming decades, in order to limit global warming to levels that avoid more catastrophic outcomes for humans and ecosystems.
And that’s on top of other techniques like cutting oil, gas and coal use significantly by 2050, to limit fresh emissions being put into the air. Even in its loosest scenario, where greenhouse-gas-intensive lifestyles continue to thrive in the coming decade, the IPCC still assumes other techniques will have to be used.
The National Energy Board said in January that there are 18 large-scale carbon capture facilities in operation worldwide, and approximately the same number proposed for development. "Collectively these facilities would capture less than 100 Mt CO2 per year, less than 1 per cent of present global emissions," it stated.
National Observer asked Fast why the tax being too low would be an issue, since the party is also attacking the government for taxing Canadians too highly. Fast said the Tories “don’t accept the premise that the tax will achieve what they claim it’s going to achieve,” at any price.
“What they haven’t told Canadians is that, in their own documents, they’re actually signaling that they want to go to $200-$300 per tonne, which is — I mean, that’s a significant hit for Canadian taxpayers to take. I don’t think Canadian taxpayers, if they really knew where this is going, that they would in any way support a carbon tax,” said Fast.
Environment and Climate Change Canada told McKenna in 2015 that a price on carbon would need to rise into the hundreds of dollars per tonne by 2050 to achieve the country’s climate targets — although that calculation was done assuming no other policies would be deployed. The Liberals have proposed a suite of policies including cracking down on methane and vehicle emissions, tightening building codes, incentivizing electric cars and a clean fuel standard for fuels used in transportation.
'Careful' how subsidies are defined
This week, the federal environment commissioner, Julie Gelfand, said the work of the Environment Department, which has been trying to identify such non-tax subsidies for years in order to phase out the inefficient ones, was “incomplete and not rigorous.” The department used “unclear definitions” in its work, said the commissioner.
Canada first committed to eliminating inefficient fossil fuel subsidies under the Harper government, at a 2009 G20 summit. The Trudeau government then went futher, promising the 2025 end date in 2016.
Oil and gas subsidies tilt the market in favour of carbon polluting energy sources, hurting clean technology firms and reducing Canada's chances at tackling climate change.
Last month, Scheer proposed eliminating federal sales tax from home-heating bills. He said he would offer rebates on the five per cent tax charged on home energy like heating oil, natural gas and propane, as well as electricity and other sources.
Asked whether he felt such a tax break amounted to a subsidy, Fast said he’d be “careful about what we refer to as a subsidy.”
“Firstly, we want to make sure that we do not reduce affordability for Canadians. We want to make sure that, as time goes by, life becomes more affordable for Canadians. Which is why, on home heating fuels, we took some steps to help Canadians with that,” he said.
The International Institute for Sustainable Development has said that clean technology firms were competing against the oil and gas industry in a market that favoured the latter, partially as a result of subsidies.
Fast said he agreed governments were “very poor at picking winners and losers” and “whatever we can do to provide incentives that don’t prefer one technology over another is a good thing.”
“If in fact, the playing field remains tilted against clean tech — and I don’t know if that’s the case or not, I’m just, not at this point in time, able to determine that with any certainty — I would say, yes, you want to take corrective measures, because we do want to encourage clean technology, especially in our oil and gas sector, in our resource sector.”