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In an ideal world, this week’s French-language leaders’ debate — the first to include the prime minister — would’ve included a rigorous discussion of the real impact of the parties’ competing climate plans, and I could speak now about the accuracy of claims on emissions reductions and the like. As it is, we will have to talk about the two airplanes.
The issue arose toward the end of a mostly platitude-level discussion of “economy and the environment.” By way of explaining (again) why carbon pricing is bad, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer turned to Justin Trudeau and said (in the CPAC English translation), “You’re very hypocritical... there’s only one leader who has two planes.”
And thus did tout le monde learn that the Liberal campaign is using two chartered airplanes for its travel: one for the PM, his staff and the media, and the other for Trudeau’s “costumes and canoe,” as Scheer put it. (Credit where due: easily the best burn of the evening.) The Conservatives clearly planned the attack ahead of time, because their social media feeds quickly filled with viral videos and shareable images calling out Trudeau’s “hypocrisy” for taxing the Canadian public’s emissions while operating two passenger jets for his campaign.
I’d like to gauge the accuracy of this line of attack on three levels. First, at the most basic level, it’s true. The Liberals are using two planes, and the second one is being used rather luxuriously to prepare event sites and so forth ahead of the campaign’s arrival. Two airplanes indubitably burn more fuel and generate more emissions — roughly twice as much, depending on the model of aircraft, the prevailing winds and all that jazz.
On another level, the Liberals have quickly pointed out that they purchased carbon offsets for their air travel through Less Emissions, a subsidiary of Bullfrog Power. By paying this premium they are funding the Essex-Windsor Regional Landfill Gas Capture and Destruction project. There are many caveats to offsetting emissions, but it’s a common practice, and companies has been doing it without controversy for years.
But on the only relatively important level — I say “relatively” because the whole discussion is of so little relevance to Canada’s collective action on climate change that we may as well be discussing the carbon footprint of the catering at campaign events — there is the question of whether Scheer’s “hypocrisy” claim holds water. Let’s dig a bit deeper on that.
Consider the centrepiece of the Liberals’ climate plan: the carbon tax. The core logic of a carbon tax is that the best way to change collective behaviour on climate change is to make polluting activities more expensive. In lieu of, just for instance, curtailing air travel altogether, the carbon tax makes flying a bit pricier. If, again, just for instance, the managers of a national election campaign still want to fly, they can pay more. Choosing to pay even more through voluntary offsets on top of whatever surcharge the carbon tax builds into their flights only underscores the argument the Liberals are making to all Canadians, which is that if your activities generate emissions, those activities should cost more. This is not hypocrisy, but pretty tidy logical consistency.
Hypocrisy, on the other hand, might be, yet again, just for instance, spending the first weeks of the campaign (and the first several pages of your climate-policy brochure) spreading falsehoods about the impact of carbon taxes and then attacking your opponent on national TV over an inconsequential climate-related detail, all to mask the utter lack of substance in your own climate plan.
I hope, almost certainly in vain, this will be the last we hear about the emissions created by campaign travel.
Editor's note: This story was updated on Oct. 4, 2019 at 3:13 p.m. ET to correct an error that said the Liberal offsets were purchased through Bullfrog and helped offset emissions via its clean energy projects. The offsets were purchased through Less Emissions, a Bullfrog subsidiary, and involved a specific gas capture project.