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Canada is entering an election amid record-breaking wildfires, heat waves, and floods that have wiped out towns and destroyed communities. There’s no doubt this is a critical time in the climate fight, and the party that governs after Sept. 20 will play a huge role in Canada’s ability to tackle the crisis in the years to come.

The good news is that the political landscape is shifting in the right direction. Unlike the last federal campaign where anti-carbon pricing rhetoric dominated the debate, this time around, every major political party is offering some sort of commitment to climate action.

But not all climate action is created equal. To help voters navigate the noise, below is a quick summary of what the major federal parties are offering on the climate file, put into perspective.

Varying ambition

Directly comparing party climate plans isn’t easy. Each is aiming for a different emissions target, and plans to get there vary in the amount of detail each party has provided.

But let's start with those targets. Earlier this year, the Liberal government announced it would increase Canada’s climate target, committing to cut greenhouse gas emissions between 40 per cent to 45 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, up from the previous target of 30 per cent. The increase followed similar commitments from other countries, including our biggest trading partners, making it a good move not only from a climate standpoint but also an economic one.

For comparison, the Conservative Party’s climate plan will not meet Canada’s current Paris target but rather would take Canada backward to an outdated 30 per cent one. Meanwhile, the NDP are gunning for a stronger target of at least 50 per cent below the 2005 benchmark — similar to the Biden administration. The Green Party of Canada advocates a 60 per cent cut, as it did in the 2019 election.

But targets are only waypoints, and it is the plan to meet them that ultimately matters most.

The Liberals, NDP and Greens all aim to build on Canada’s climate efforts. They want to increase both ambition and action — while the Conservatives want to go backward, write @merransmith and @sarahcpetrevan of @cleanenergyca. #elxn44 #cdnpoli

Election promises

Looking forward, the big focus areas for the next decade need to be clean electricity, clean transportation, and driving down oil and gas emissions with accountable milestones. This past Sunday, the Liberals announced an election climate platform that checks all those boxes.

Canada’s electricity grid is already 83 per cent emissions-free, and the new Liberal plan is to get that to 100 per cent by 2035 as we grow our clean grid to power Canada’s energy transition — essentially, matching the Biden administration’s 100 per cent clean electricity goal in the U.S.

On transportation, the Liberals now have a plan to hit their recently announced target of selling only zero-emission cars by 2035: a requirement that at least 50 per cent of all new passenger vehicle sales are electric by 2030, on the way to 100 per cent by 2035. The Liberals will also extend their federal electric vehicle (EV) rebate by another three years while supporting the expansion of charging infrastructure. Transportation is responsible for a quarter of all emissions in this country, so proactively solving Canada’s car conundrum is critical.

And finally, the new Liberal plan looks to drive down oil and gas sector emissions with five-year targets all the way to net-zero by 2050. This industry alone is our largest source of emissions and responsible for 26 per cent of Canada’s contribution to climate change. Further oil and gas expansion threatens to undermine our climate efforts elsewhere, and the reality is that these companies need to reduce emissions now if they want to compete and not become relics. The best oil companies around the world are already transforming themselves into clean energy companies.

Beyond this weekend’s announcements, the Liberal-led federal government has taken other key steps over the past year, most notably proposing to raise the carbon price to $170 per tonne by 2030. The federal government also invested in clean industries, channelling billions into the Net Zero Accelerator Initiative to fund projects that cut emissions. And the last year has seen the feds make deals with the Ontario government, Canada’s largest union, and the Big Three automakers to assemble electric vehicles in Canada.

In combination, measures in the government’s December 2020 climate update and Budget 2021 were projected to achieve emission reductions of 36 per cent by 2030. Meaning that, even ahead of its new election promises, Canada was already set to achieve stronger emission reductions than the Conservatives’ proposed alternative plan, projected to achieve only a 30 per cent reduction. Of course, the gap between the two parties’ respective targets is wider still.

To hit their weaker target, the Conservatives propose adopting a carbon price starting at $20 per tonne and increasing to a maximum of $50 per tonne. However, it’s important to note that the party would raise the industrial carbon price only as long as Canada's trading partners, notably the U.S. and the EU, do the same — despite the party’s modelling relying on an increased price of $170 a tonne by 2030 to meet its target.

On transportation, the party would introduce an EV standard, but would only require 30 per cent of new car sales to be electric by 2030. The plan also includes investment in electricity transmission infrastructure to support EV growth, along with other measures.

In short, the Conservative climate plan is, unlike in 2019, at least a real plan. At the same time, it is insufficient and would represent a globally embarrassing step backward.

The NDP, meanwhile, intends to implement the current government’s carbon pricing plan and the 2035 ban on selling fossil-fuel-powered cars. Additionally, it would increase EV incentives up to $15,000 per family for made-in-Canada vehicles. The party would also aim to electrify transit and other municipal fleets by 2030 and eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, redirecting these funds to low-carbon initiatives.

On electricity, the NDP would push for a net-zero electricity grid by 2030, five years ahead of the Liberal target, and would introduce carbon budgets for different sectors, with the same net-zero 2050 goal as the Liberal approach to oil and gas.

Finally, the Greens have indicated general support for a carbon price, eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, and shifting to renewables, but the party has not specified in detail how it would meet its 60 per cent target.

Ultimately, while details and approaches vary, the Liberals, NDP and Greens all aim to build on Canada’s climate efforts. They want to increase both ambition and action — and one party, the Conservatives, wants to go backward.

This summer reminded us that everything from our economy to our backyard is being impacted by climate change. Election 2021 comes at a critical time for both combating climate change and growing Canada’s low-carbon competitive advantage. Whatever happens on Sept. 20, let’s hope we emerge with a government ready to meet the opportunity.

Merran Smith is the executive director and Sarah Petrevan is the policy director of Clean Energy Canada, a program at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue.

Update: Shortly after this piece was published, the Liberal Party released an updated climate plan with a number of additional relevant measures, including a commitment to both end fossil fuel subsidies by 2023 and develop a plan to phase-out public financing of the fossil fuel sector in line with Canada's Paris Agreement commitments.

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"Canada’s election comes at a critical time in the climate fight"
What a tragedy that our main political parties give Canadians such poor choices.

Several dubious claims:
1) " Canada’s electricity grid is already 83 per cent emissions-free"
Neither hydro nor nuclear is emissions free. Big hydro projects drown landscapes: habitat loss; downstream riparian effects; mercury contamination. They also emit methane. Hydropower is not remotely green.
2) "Transportation is responsible for a quarter of all emissions in this country, so proactively solving Canada’s car conundrum is critical."
We have a transportation conundrum, not a car conundrum. Public transit, smart urban design, and cycling infrastructure, not EVs, are the solution. Cars drive sprawl, and sprawl forces people to drive. Huge energy and resource inputs required. EVs are not low-carbon. EV rebates mostly subsidize the rich.
3) "The best oil companies around the world are already transforming themselves into clean energy companies."
Carbon Tracker 2019: "Every oil major is betting heavily against a 1.5 degree C world and investing in projects that are contrary to the Paris goals."
Not one big oil company has bet big on renewables. No oil company seeks to sideline its main business. No fossil fuel company looks forward to stranding its petroleum assets.
Most oil majors are irrevocably opposed to an energy transition that threatens to impair their profits, strand their assets, and ultimately put them out of business. Other oil majors continue to expand fossil fuel production and see renewables as a minor sideline. Neither of these groups is eager for an energy transition that hurts their bottom line. They have every interest in slowing the transition down.
"It's difficult for Big Oil to even cast itself as committed to helping the world transition to a low-carbon future, since the investments by them in renewable energy are dwarfed by the money spent on new oil and gas projects."
"COP21: Big Oil in hiding at Paris climate talks", (CBC, Dec 07, 2015)

Well said as usual, Geoffrey.

To expand a bit more on Geoffrey's rebuttal, EVs don't change much at all, except the direct emissions and a shift out of one of the Alberta oil industry's primary markets. You still have between 1/3 and 1/2 of all urban land covered in asphalt, the preservation of one of the most inefficient modes of transport ever invented, and the locking in of outdated land use zoning that exacerbates poor urbanism.

Moreover, sprawl does nothing to protect agricultural land at the periphery of most of our cities from massive, low density subdivisions, just as the places we import most of our produce from are burning up and nearing the end of their cyclical wasteful water management practice. One day the refrigerated trucks carrying produce from California and Mexico will start to slow, then eventually stop crossing the Canada-US border in an effort to protect American food security.

We should be liberating our cities from cars and devoting more space to human beings. We should be protecting green belts and fostering regenerative agricultural practices everywhere, from small market gardens and solar greenhouses within 50 km of our cities to huge grain farms. We should planting billions of trees. We should be practicing 'agrivoltaics', that is, building vast arrays of solar photovoltaic panels raised high enough off the ground to grow crops in semi-shade under them. We should be building a national smart grid devoted to 100% zero emission electricity corridors across the continent and doubling them up with electrified rail in all its permutations.

This is not astrophysics. It doesn't even require more than a small increase in political courage. All it requires is imagination and the practical common sense to make it happen.

So why do I still feel so damned cynical?

As a secondary consideration, analyses that offer breathless enthusiasm for EVs are not thorough enough and do little to address the long term consequences of exponentially increasing the mining of lithium and cobalt, especially as these metals are unwisely increasingly consumed for large-scale stationary power storage.

This shines a spotlight onto the amount of energy needed to displace the energy density of liquid fossil fuels currently used. Many energy prognosticators predict that electricity in transportation will not be available in enough quantities to support our huge levels of car dependency, even with ramped up renewables. In all likelihood, our society will have to get used to using about 1/3 less overall energy.

This puts the responsibility on organizations like Clean Energy Canada to define the total amount of energy and earth resources required to switch all combustion cars and trucks over to battery and zero emission grid power. It's doubtful that we will see EVs replace ICE cars at even a 7:10 ratio. If that scenario plays out, then what part of our energy world will have to go?

Autonomous EVs have been touted as the answer. Well, car share is not a panacea either. Who wants to climb into an AEV with a mess left by the drunken previous passengers? Who will calculate the energy penalties for deadheading AEVs returning to town empty from the suburbs? What politico will vote to increase -- let alone maintain -- huge municipal engineering budgets to support the street network for 1/3 fewer cars? Which PR flack or advertiser would give up those lucrative nightly truck and SUV ads on prime time TV in favour of unsexy electric Corollas lacking manual control? The jury is out on AEVs.

Meanwhile, a single high-capacity subway train on a frequent schedule will displace 400-500 cars. One light rail train will displace 200-300 cars. One articulated electric bus will displace 50-100 cars. A multi-zoned walkable neighbourhood riven with low rise commercial high streets with generous pedestrian spaces will lower the demand for all motorized transport by orders of magnitude. Urbanizing the suburbs with high-capacity regional rail coupled with improvements to local transit and zoning will have a similar effect.

Over the last 25 years Vancouver doubled its dense downtown population. A new rapid transit line was built. It then saw a remarkable drop in traffic on and off the downtown peninsula as people found it far more convenient and less expensive to walk or take transit. Vancouver also doubled down on building bike and pedestrian routes. The overall effect was a dramatic decrease in urban GHG emissions and a transit / bike / Reebok transportation mode share that attained 53% of all commutes, city wide. All this was done without EVs.

I don't expect much from the Liberals or the Conservatives. It's business as usual, "Yes, we can have pipelines and tackle climate change too!". Nice to see the NDP has finally come into the 21st century on the issue, but it's still all just smoke and mirrors. Their climate action plan is almost verbatim out of the Green Party playbook; it plays well during an election. But the fact that their environmental critic is Laurel Collins speaks volumes to their lack of serious commitment.