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Part 1 of a two-part series. Read Part 2 here.
Two years ago, with the right reunited and back in government in Alberta, led by a triumphant Jason Kenney, it seemed hard to imagine the Alberta NDP returning to government any time soon. But in a stunning turnaround, the prospect of Rachel Notley’s NDP being re-elected in 2023 no longer seems at all far-fetched.
While most Canadian premiers have seen a rise in their popularity during the pandemic, Kenney’s has plummeted, with his approval ratings currently the third lowest among Canada’s premiers. As of late 2020, the Alberta NDP had surpassed Kenney’s United Conservative Party in opinion polls. More recently, the NDP has secured a commanding lead.
Some of this is a tribute to Notley, whose comparative appeal and defence of public services is winning some folks back. On the whole, however, what is unfolding in Alberta is a remarkable own-goal by Kenney. Persisting with ideological program cuts even in the face of the pandemic, Kenney’s stubborn adherence to a right-wing agenda is not going over well among Albertans.
I would dearly welcome the return of an Alberta NDP government in 2023. But as someone who is deeply anxious about the climate emergency, I also wonder whether a second Notley government would be prepared to tackle the climate crisis more aggressively than during its first incarnation. Might the NDP, eight years after their first election to government, be able to tell a more forthright story to Albertans about the future of oil and gas? And equally important, has the terrain sufficiently shifted such that enough Albertans might be ready to hear it?
The Notley climate record
Like all federal and provincial governments in Canada, the Notley NDP government (2015-19) advanced a contradictory climate policy. We are living in a time of deep disconnection — a harrowing void between what is scientifically/ecologically necessary and what our politics seems prepared to entertain. We elect governments that promise climate action, they deliver underwhelming and inconsistent policies, and then get replaced by right-wing governments that undo what little progress we’ve seen. This has been the Canadian story of the last three lost decades.
The Notley government released its climate plan with great fanfare in November 2015. It included the introduction of a carbon tax and a commitment to phase out coal-fired electricity by 2030. At the same time, it permitted a 40 per cent increase in oilsands emissions. Notley was keen to appease the fossil fuel corporations, and she relentlessly pursued new bitumen pipeline capacity.
The Notley plan rightly gained kudos for its accelerated phaseout of coal. But of the 18 coal-fired electricity generators, all but three are being converted to natural gas, another fossil fuel. On a brighter note, Alberta has seen a flourishing of renewable electricity projects, including the largest solar farm in Canada, and is now predicted to lead the country in the growth of renewables.
Ultimately, climate plans and policies should be judged on the basis of what they achieve with respect to actual greenhouse gas emission reductions. The accompanying chart shows Alberta’s GHG emissions from the year 2000 to 2018 (the last year for which we have data), with the Notley years in government circled in red.
"As someone who is deeply anxious about the climate emergency, I ... wonder whether a second Notley government would be prepared to tackle the climate crisis more aggressively than during its first incarnation," writes columnist @SethDKlein.
Note that this chart only captures domestic emissions. So it includes GHGs emitted from the extraction and production of oil and gas in Alberta. But it does not include the GHGs from all the Alberta fossil fuels exported and burned somewhere else, which are massive (nearly as high as Canada’s total domestic emissions).
Two truths are revealed by this chart. First, the Notley government’s climate record was certainly better than the previous half-decade. The NDP (along with slumping international oil prices) managed to stem the rise in emissions and level off the province’s GHGs.
Second, Alberta’s plateaued GHG emissions remain at a historic high, and if that trajectory continues we’re in big trouble. Given that Alberta, as of 2018, accounts for 38 per cent of Canada’s total domestic GHG emissions, were the province to persist in merely flatlining its emissions, the task of the country as a whole meeting its climate targets becomes virtually impossible.
From these two truths emerge two further conclusions. First, if and when the NDP are re-elected, we need them to do better. Much better. And second, the rest of Canada should feel powerfully compelled to assist Alberta in that task — we all need to help Alberta bend the curve.
The oil and gas industry does not represent a huge share of Canada’s overall GDP. But that’s not true in Alberta, where in recent years that sector has accounted for roughly a third of economic activity and about seven per cent of employment. That makes climate action particularly challenging in Alberta. If an Alberta government is to do what we all need them to do, the federal government needs to offer substantial and concrete assistance.
I have proposed the feds do so with a new transfer program — a Climate Emergency Just Transition Transfer (as I outlined in this Observer piece, co-authored with Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan), and I’d encourage the Alberta NDP to lead the call for such a program. The federal transfer could be specifically linked to funding climate infrastructure and renewable energy projects that would create thousands of jobs, along with training/apprenticeships. It could be a mechanism to renew confederation while rising to the climate crisis.
The amount of the federal transfer should be audacious — something in the order of $20-40 billion a year for the next 10 years. But unlike most federal transfers, which allocate funding by population, this transfer’s distribution formula should be linked to GHG emissions in each province (but fixed from that point onward, so that it does not perversely incentivize continued high GHGs). As Alberta currently produces 38 per cent of Canada’s GHG emissions, it would receive 38 per cent of the transfer money. This scale of support would mean just transition would not be the hollow promise of the past, but a concrete offer of billions of dollars and real investment. It should include a good jobs guarantee for fossil fuel workers and those in impacted communities. An innovation such as this could be a linchpin within an overall transition plan that is fair and just.
But are Albertans ready for a new conversation on the future of oil and gas? That’s the subject of Part 2 tomorrow.