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If you want to become disillusioned with the state of Canadian politics, all you need to do is spend a few minutes watching a federal leaders’ debate. The format of the recent English language debate, which seemed needlessly chaotic and confrontational, didn’t help. At times, it felt like a mashup of a five-car collision, a badly-planned dinner party, and an infomercial for Jody Wilson-Raybould’s forthcoming book. But amid all the talking points, spin, and bluster, there was one subject that managed to rise above the fray: climate change.
This, at least in part, reflects the fact that this is the issue with the most visible distance between the major parties. But it’s also because climate change is the issue that will define this election when we look back on it in the future. Disagreements about benefits for seniors, foreign policy, and how best to balance the budget will fade into the noise of history. What will remain is the government we elected, and what they ultimately decided to do about climate change.
So how should climate-focused voters decide? As Thursday’s debate showed, they can’t do it by listening to the party leaders, who spent more time tearing each other’s plans and records down than building up their own. And few will have the time or expertise required to go through the respective platforms and assess them on their merits. That’s where the experts ought to come in — and where many already have.
Last week, SFU professor and economist Mark Jaccard published a scorecard assessing the “climate sincerity” of the competing plans. Jaccard, who is a lead author with the International Panel on Climate Change, rated the five plans on the basis of their stated ambitions and how they intend to get there. And while the Green Party and NDP have the most ambitious targets, with planned GHG reductions of 60 per cent and 50 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, Jaccard made it clear he wasn’t scoring them strictly on that basis. “We need to know if the party has policies that will achieve its target, and we need to know if it’s being honest about the cost.”
As Clean Energy Canada’s Merran Smith and Sarah Petevan wrote, “targets are only waypoints, and it is the plan to meet them that ultimately matters most.” In the end, Jaccard gave the Liberal plan a score of eight out of 10, noting its combination of a rising price on carbon and new regulations like a zero-emissions vehicle mandate of 50 per cent of new sales by 2030 and a declining cap on oil and gas emissions should help Canada reach its stated target of a 40 per cent reduction from 2005 levels. That would come at an expected cost of a 2.5 per cent reduction in Canada’s GDP by 2030.
The Conservatives, perhaps surprisingly, came second in Jaccard’s rankings. While their plan is less ambitious than any of the other major parties, its stated policies would help Canada reach them. Where the Conservatives fall down, in his view, is on their sincerity and trustworthiness on this file. “Past federal and provincial Conservative governments have not been sincere about reducing GHG emissions,” he wrote. “One hopes the 2021 federal Conservatives are different, but the Canadian voter should be wary.”
But it’s the scores received by the NDP and Green Party that have attracted the most attention — and the most anger. After all, despite having more ambitious emission reductions targets, Jaccard only gave the Greens a score of 4 out of 10, while the NDP came in dead last with a score of 2. Why? Because, in his view, their plans don’t stand up to the scrutiny of an economist’s analysis — or the real-world tradeoffs it necessarily incorporates. “Beware of politicians who promise that someone else – heavy industry, fossil fuel companies, foreign corporations, automobile companies – will pay to decarbonize our economy,” he writes. “We all have to pay.”
He’s not the only expert who has taken a dim view of the NDP and Green plans. In a piece for CBC, University of Calgary economist Jennifer Winter pointed out that Jagmeet Singh’s climate plan looks an awful lot like one he put out in 2019 — right down to the photo of him in a canoe on the cover. But it’s what isn’t in there that really catches her attention. Notably absent are any mention of the oil sands or how to tackle their emissions, and the plan is conspicuously vague on the supposed “loopholes” given to big polluters that it would roll back. If the NDP is referring to the Output Based Pricing System, that’s actually something that their colleagues in Alberta developed and introduced in 2017. And if they remove it, Winters asks, what would they replace it with? “To raise the level of debate and present a credible alternative on climate, the NDP needs to do better to describe how and why it'll engage in policy change.”
The Green Party isn’t much better on this front. University of Alberta economist Andrew Leach, who chaired the NDP government’s Climate Change Advisory Panel in 2016, tweeted that “this platform is just so fundamentally unserious it should be an affront to those with real concerns about climate. You'd just as soon assume a magic wand as assume that you can go 100% renewable in 8 years in some regions.” Jaccard, too, points out that the Green plan has some unrealistic expectations baked into it. “The 60 per cent target requires the price of gasoline to rise so quickly it not only convinces all new car buyers to get zero-emission vehicles, it also convinces people who recently bought gasoline cars to prematurely scrap these (having zero second-hand value).”
Canadians have a clear choice on September 20th. They can vote for a party that wants to aim lower on climate change than we already do, at a time when the rest of the world is trying to raise the bar. They can pick between two parties with aggressive emissions targets but no serious plan to actually meet them. Or they can support one that has the backing of economists, central bankers, and even the former leader of the Green Party of BC, who just happens to be a climate scientist himself. It may be tempting to throw this baby out with all the bathwater that has accumulated in the tub over the last six years. But this time, we might want to listen to the experts.