Why you should take Mark Jaccard’s platform ratings with a hunk of salt

If there is some good news in this election it is that, finally, every leader and party feels compelled to run on what they hope will be viewed as a credible climate plan, and each of the major parties appears to be presenting a somewhat stronger climate plan than just two years ago.

The bad news, however, is that neither of the front-runner parties has a plan with the level of ambition and urgency to match what Parliament itself has acknowledged: We are in the midst of a climate emergency. The dominant parties remain fixated, for the most part, on market-based “solutions” inherently unable to meet the task at hand at the speed and scale required. Sadly, that’s also true of many of the experts from whom they seek advice.

Instead, we remain mired in incremental approaches that seek to incentivize businesses and households to do the right thing, and when necessary, we bring in regulations that are too late and too modest. The purported strength of this dominant approach is often shrouded in fancy economic modelling, but it’s worth stressing that it has also been spectacularly unsuccessful.

Here are Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over the last 20 years, an ignominious performance under both Liberal and Conservative federal governments.

Canada’s GHGs remain plateaued at an historic high; we have failed to “bend the curve.” Indeed, GHGs have risen each of the last four years under the current Liberal government. To add some nuance to this chart, we have actually managed to lower emissions in a number of jurisdictions and sectors, but all that good work has been undone by the continued growth in GHGs from oil and gas extraction and production.

Simon Fraser University economist Mark Jaccard has been advising governments on climate policy for decades. Jaccard, in his recent assessment of federal party climate platforms published in Policy Options, finds the Liberals’ climate plan the “most sincere” of those on offer (indeed, Jaccard grades the Libs far ahead of the other major parties), followed by the Conservatives, then the Greens, and lastly, the NDP. Jaccard’s piece has been irresistible candy for the political punditry and unsurprisingly has been quickly turned into Liberal campaign talking points.

A man with dark brown hair and a suit jacket looks at the camera
Mark Jaccard, professor and author of The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success. Photo by SFU Public Affairs and Media Relations / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

If this ranking, set against the recent historical record and your perception of reality, seems counter-intuitive, you’re not wrong. Economic models such as those employed by Jaccard, often rooted in market-based assumptions about how the world works and highly sensitive to what gets included and excluded in the model’s parallel universe, can frequently produce fanciful results.

The main problem with Jaccard’s ratings is he’s measuring the wrong thing. His ratings are primarily derived by determining whether the policies proposed by each party would credibly meet that party’s own stated GHG reduction target. The more likely a party’s policies are to meet its own target, the more “climate sincere” Jaccard finds the plan to be. But by this measure, the more ambitious the target, the less likely Jaccard is to find your plan credible.

The main problem with Mark Jaccard’s ratings is he’s measuring the wrong thing, writes columnist @SethDKlein for @NatObserver. #elxn44 #ClimatePlatforms

It’s like an Olympic diver getting the top score because she or he successfully nails the least complicated dive. If this approach to rating strikes you less like a sincerity test and more like a student self-evaluation, you’d not be far off.

'Code Red for humanity'

As for sincerity, well, it seems perplexing to score this trait with so little consideration of a party’s past record. Is it sincere to declare a climate emergency one day in the House of Commons, and then reapprove the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion the very next day (as the Liberals did in the summer of 2019)? When politicians show us who they are by what they actually invest in, maybe we should believe them. As for the Conservatives, they go so far as to claim they would revive the now dead and defunct Northern Gateway pipeline.

The Liberals mainly achieve Jaccard’s top rating because he believes they have tabled a credible plan to achieve their target of cutting GHGs by 40 per cent by 2030. The Conservatives rate second because Jaccard finds they have a reasonably credible plan to reach their even less ambitious goal to cut GHGs by a mere 30 per cent by 2030 (a target that would shamefully necessitate withdrawing from the UN’s Paris Agreement on climate).

One can quickly see where this logic leads. But Jaccard offers no critique of the actual targets: whether they are appropriate, consistent with our international commitments, or up to the urgent task that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called a “Code Red for humanity.” And that’s a problem. Because both those parties’ targets are far too low and lack ambition in the face of what the IPCC says is now needed. Yet Jaccard finds these two parties’ plans to be the most “sincere.”

Missing from Jaccard’s assessment is an analysis of power, particularly as it plays out within the Liberal party. That’s a problem because, without that framework, one has no understanding of how and why it is that the Liberals consistently promise to do things in an election (campaign from the left) and then fail to follow through (govern from the right). This is why, policy platforms aside, voters must make another determination — who do you most trust to take on this urgent task? That question can be applied to parties and/or to individual candidates. Who do you think is most credible when it comes to this task of our lives?

And if winning on the climate front requires confronting powerful corporate interests, not least from the fossil fuel industry, who do you think has the guts and gumption to stand up to those interests? The answers to those questions are of course a matter of legitimate debate and opinion. But given recent political records, those answers might well produce a reverse ranking from Jaccard.

Jaccard’s ratings also reflect his orientation towards market-based “solutions.” One reason Jaccard rates the NDP so low is that he chooses to simply ignore a host of key planks in the NDP climate platform that simply have no place in his market-based toolbox; policies that simply do not fit within his economic model. For example, the NDP platform includes potentially game-changing policy ideas such as national and sectoral carbon budgeting, something that could galvanize action much more quickly than a 2030 GHG target (Jaccard dismisses the idea as “difficult to conceptualize, let alone model,” even though carbon budgets have been a central element of the U.K.’s climate strategy, which has been far more successful than Canada’s at actually reducing GHGs); embedding net-zero GHG goals within the mandates of the Canada Pension Plan, the Export Development Bank, all Crown corporations, and most notably, the Bank of Canada (hey, how about some climate quantitative easing to pay for a Green New Deal!); and a Civilian Climate Corps, an idea that, if sufficiently financed, could invite an entire generation of young people to meet this emergency moment with us, just as a previous generation of youth enlisted and rallied during the Second World War. Jaccard pays no mind to any of these ideas.

'Sincere' plan fixes nothing

Oddly, Jaccard seems to assume that the NDP plan does not include carbon pricing (the centrepiece of the Liberals’ strategy). But reading the NDP platform, that is incorrect. The NDP plan states: “Putting a price on carbon has been an important tool in efforts to drive emissions reductions. We will continue with carbon pricing (their emphasis) while making it fairer and rolling back loopholes this Liberal government has given to big polluters. But we also recognize that carbon pricing won’t be enough to tackle the climate crisis. Further action is needed.”

The NDP, rightly, does not rely on carbon pricing as an overarching magic bullet; instead, its plan is entirely additional to the carbon pricing schedule the Liberals have proposed (and indeed, with respect to industry, the NDP would impose tougher carbon pricing). Additionally, the NDP climate platform, unlike the Liberal one, mercifully does not play up false solutions like carbon capture and storage or blue (fossil fuel-based) hydrogen.

Jaccard ignores the most critical criterion against which all parties’ plans should be judged. When one assesses climate platforms through the lens of the climate emergency, the questions one should pose are different: Does this proposed plan look, sound, and feel like an emergency undertaking? Does it invite Canadians to join in a grand society-wide undertaking to transform our economy and society? Is the party proposing to spend what it takes to win (as we did in the face of the Second World War and the pandemic)? Is the party proposing new economic institutions that will drive change and mass produce the equipment needed to decarbonize virtually everything, and if the market fails to act at the speed and scale required, allow us ­— the Canadian public — to undertake the task ourselves? Is the party trying to merely incentivize our way to victory — through price signals, rebates, credits, and tax cuts — or is it willing to bring in mandatory measures in the near term to get this job done? And is this party telling the truth about the severity of the crisis, and what is required to meet this generational challenge?

Set against these questions, none of the platforms hold up as a comprehensive climate emergency plan. But the high grade Jaccard assigns to the Liberals feels particularly incongruous. Being “sincere” about a climate plan that is clearly inadequate hardly deserves praise from anyone: neither economists nor voters.

With respect to spending what it takes to win, Jaccard sees this matter backwards — in his model, all spending is a “cost” and a drain on the economy, and the higher the cost, the lower his rating. The less a party relies on price signals, according to Jaccard, the greater the negative hit on the economy. This reflects an assumption, common in many market-oriented economic models, that market signals alone can usually attain optimal outcomes to any policy challenge. This assumption has been proven wrong over and over again: whether by the clearly irrational behaviour of financial markets, real estate bubbles, and stubborn recessions. Jaccard’s modelling seems to take no account for the positive economic and employment impact of ambitious climate spending/investment. In fact, what government spending in the face of other emergencies —such as the Second World War and the pandemic — makes abundantly clear is that such spending has been critical to boosting employment and economic performance.

Indeed, Jaccard’s approach to costs paradoxically penalizes ambition. He writes, “The more ambitious the GHG target, the higher the cost, leaving less money for transitional help for middle- and low-income families, workers in hard-hit industries and Indigenous peoples.” Consider for a moment where the logic of this assumption takes us. It effectively means that any party that seeks to treat the climate as the crisis that scientists implore — that seeks to tackle the emergency at the speed and scale that the IPCC demands — will impose costs that make the task impossible. If Jaccard is right about that, we’re fried.

Jaccard's blind spots

Jaccard does, rightly, see an important role for regulations. Which makes his high marks for the Liberals particularly odd, as the Liberals’ approach has largely eschewed a tough regulatory approach. Where mandatory dates are employed (such as requiring that all new vehicles be zero-emissions ones), the dates are far too distant. A 2035 ZEV mandate for light-duty vehicles (as the Liberals and NDP are both proposing) does not communicate emergency, even less so the Conservatives’ ZEV mandate year of 2040. But overall, the Liberal strategy is to seek to incentivize our way to victory, placing our trust in carbon pricing, rebates, tax credits, and a corporate tax cut for businesses manufacturing low-carbon products. It’s an approach that will damn us to a fiery hell.

Jaccard has another blind spot in his approach to climate. He is among those climate policy purists who object to efforts to link the need for bold climate action with the imperative to tackle growing inequality (best exemplified by the push for a Green New Deal). According to these purists, climate policy should not be weighed down by social justice and inequality issues. After all, they claim, climate policy is complicated enough on its own, so don’t let inequality issues hijack the climate agenda.

Except they are wrong. Climate action and inequality must be linked. First, because they are inherently linked — the wealthier you are, the higher your emissions; the poorer you are, the more vulnerable you are to climate impacts and climate policy. Second, they must be linked because that’s how we win. When you are asking the public to join in a grand societal transition, people need to know the transition will be just and equitable, that everyone will contribute their fair share, and that a more just society will emerge from the other end.

That’s why one cannot assess a party’s climate platform separately from its plans to tackle inequality and enhance tax fairness. It’s why policy proposals such as the NDP’s wealth tax and new corporate taxes (also proposed by the Greens) are such a vital piece of how we get the public on board with an ambitious climate plan. A party’s plans to tackle inequality aren’t a separate part of its platform — they are integral to the viability and public support of the party’s climate plan. Here again, once one brings this dimension into consideration, the party platforms arguably produce a ranking that is the opposite of Jaccard’s.

But given that none of the party platforms represent full climate emergency plans, nor are any of the main party leaders talking about climate nearly enough, as voters approach the federal election, what the parties are promising matters less than the vital importance of electing a large contingent of true climate justice champions who will press all their parties for real leadership to confront the crisis. So find your local climate champs — the candidates you believe to be sincerely in this to win this task of our lives — and help to get them elected.

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I've read your book (A Good War), Seth, and quite appreciated what it had to offer. A number of your points in this article are obviously based on some of its contents. I also appreciated how you tore strips off the climate change party positions of the Liberals, Conservatives and to a lesser degree, the NDP. But given Jaccard's (whose book, The Citizen's Guide to Climate Success, I've also read) failings in party platform position that you've articulated well, I'm aghast that you failed to deal with the Green Party's platform on climate change. Jaccard rated the parties (from best to worst) as Liberals, Conservatives, Greens, and NDP. You covered everyone but the Greens. In fact, the party only gets mentioned twice in passing in your whole article (once to point out they were rated in third place). EPIC FAIL as far as I'm concerned, because I was looking forward to the same degree of critical thinking about their position that you applied mostly to the Liberals and the Conservatives. Kind of lacking on the NDP critique as well. To be positive, lets' just say, I look forward to seeing a more complete review of party platforms on climate change -- well before the election!

The whole "taxes and market measures are everything" approach is bad economics even on the terms of reasonably rigorous mainstream economics, let alone the real world. I think the concept of elasticity of demand gets introduced in first year ECON, or at most second year. And it has been established that demand for fossil fuels is quite inelastic. What that means is that it's not very price sensitive--you can raise prices quite a bit and people will mostly keep on using them. Therefore, raising prices via a carbon tax is, according to undergrad level economic analysis, NOT VERY EFFICIENT.

There are a lot of reasons why demand for fossil fuels is fairly inelastic. If you look at building heating, switching has big up-front costs. For renters, it's not even under their control, and the person who does control it generally doesn't pay the tax. If you look at transportation, individual consumers don't control what the options are. For instance, you can't just say "I'll switch to taking transit" if there's no transit to take. Putting the transit infrastructure in place requires public action, direct spending by government (which the NDP promises to double, a promise that Jaccard no doubt does not count as a factor).

The general centre-right discourse on carbon taxes essentially pretends that fossil fuel demand is perfectly elastic, the way all demand would be in the land of magical perfect markets. If that were the case, carbon taxes would be the most efficient thing and a whopping big one would be all we need. But studies and fairly simple logic both make clear that is far from true. As a result, while carbon taxes have their place, they are far from the main event in any solid climate action plan . . . even a plan conceived by a mainstream economist, if that economist was not studiedly ignoring basic economic concepts.

Another great Seth Klein review. But, I do not think there will be any great improvement in Canada's approach to climate change after this election. I just hope it does not get worse.
The major change that needs to happen is proportional representation at all levels of government. Until this happens, I truly believe our jails will become fuller and there will be growing protests on all kinds of topics as we burn in the west, drown in the ease, and have mega storms in the prairies.
VOTE GREEN and lower your individual impact to our environment. WE are the plague on the planet.

Thank you Seth.

The Liberals promised to eliminate fossil-fuel subsidies in the 2015 and 2019 elections, have had over five years to do it, but did nothing.

They promised to get rid of the First-Past-the-Post electoral system, but only apologized for not doing it; it turns out that they wanted single-member electoral districts with ranked ballots, a system that could well result in Liberal Party governments for ever.

Do not trust Liberal Party promises.

The promise was to eliminate "inefficient" fossil fuel subsidies. Then they produced a report that found every one of their subsidies to be "efficient." So now there.

As for electoral reform, I'll never forgive the Liberals for breaking the promise that was repeated 1,800 times during the 2015 campaign. I can simply no longer believe anything that comes out of Justin Trudeau's mouth.

At Trudeau's first press conference after his visit to the GG he was asked by several journalists: "If you don't get your majority, will you resign?" I think that was an excellent question and should continue to be asked widely. I'm hoping for a reduced Liberal minority followed by JT's exit from the political scene.

Hats off to Seth Klein for his excellent insights.
A rotten tomato to Jaccard for his upside-down ranking of the parties on climate.

Are the pipeline-buying, oilsands-expanding, fossil-fuels-subsidizing, oil-and-gas-cheerleading, LNG-supporting, IEA-rejecting, IPPC-denying, creative-accounting, white-elephant-investing, no-barrels-left-in-the-ground, forked-tongued Liberals really our best hope for climate action?
Sad commentary on Canadian politics.

What the Liberals say and what they do are two different things. (And what they say is bad enough. See "Jonathan Wilkinson says Liberals are the best hope for a net-zero future" on today's National Observer.) "Surprising to see so many people fall for the same stunt election after election. Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown. Definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

The Conservatives are hopeless on climate, so by some twist of logic that makes the Liberals acceptable. Too many calories in a Tim Hortons doughnut, so the chocolate-cake weight-loss plan must be a sure winner.

Mark Jaccard seems to give Trudeau's Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion a free pass — yet he rejects the notion that oilsands expansion is compatible with Canada's climate targets. Can't tell whether the professor is coming or going.

A month after the election, the Liberals will go back to being a grievous disappointment; and the faithful will kick themselves. Again.

Same gong show in Alberta, where progressives feverishly await the second coming of Rachel Notley. The pipeline queen will be our new climate champion. Unlike last time. Who needs evidence when you have faith?
Rachel and Justin will lead us to the promised land — the climate leaders who think boosting emissions is the same as cutting them. Liberal duplicity is infinite — but our faith knows no end. Both Notley and Kenny are happy to pour billions of tax dollars into pipelines, but only Notley can get one built.
Notley supporters called her pipeline antics "pragmatic politics". Our house is on fire. Pragmatic is putting the fire out.

I'm not sure how electing "climate champions" would make much difference in our current political system, where votes are whipped and party unity holds sway. What happens the first time one of these climate champions votes against their party leader's wishes or position? Jody Wilson-Raybould anyone? If we had proportional representation (which seems further off than ever) these climate champions could, I suppose, form their own party (or revitalize the Greens and turn it into a real political party) but we don't.

Seth Klein is developing his politics along clear, logical lines. This quite good and energetic article kind of runs out of air at the end because the author shrinks from the logic of pursuing over the long term the multi-faceted, interwoven solutions he sees necessary that can only be achieved "at the necessary speed and and scale" through fully democratic social and economic planning to satisfy human needs and re-establish eco-harmony--in short, democratic socialism. A Green New Society, designed and won by a mobilized, self-organized population is what we need so much more than a handful of fettered "climate champions" in a highly undemocratic Parliament.     - Gene McGuckin