5 ways the election changed climate politics
The election may not have changed the seat count much in Parliament, but it was actually pretty significant for climate politics.
In fact, it was a high-water mark for climate in a federal election. For the first time, all the major parties put forward real programs to tackle climate change. Last time round, two-thirds of Canadians voted for parties that supported carbon pricing and regulations. In this election, fully 95 per cent did so.
Many critical issues didn’t get nearly the policy attention they should have. Reconciliation was reduced mainly to arguments over drinking water, long-term care was inexcusably absent, and the parties managed, somehow, to keep this summer’s drought and food insecurity off the radar.
Climate change didn’t get the level of attention the crisis deserves, but it got a significant amount, mostly as a cudgel. The Liberals bashed the Conservatives for lacking ambition and the NDP for lacking seriousness. They, in turn, pummeled the Liberals for not having produced results in reducing climate pollution.
But underneath the public pummeling, there were several big changes in climate politics.
Here are five key takeaways.
1. Oil and gas production is finally on the table.
The Liberals made two important pledges on this front. In a surprise move, they promised to cap greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector and then reduce them to net zero in five-year carbon budgets. Finally, there’s an opening to tackle Canada’s largest and fastest-growing source of climate pollution.
The Liberals also pledged to dramatically strengthen regulations on methane. The new rules would force industry to reduce emissions 75 per cent by the end of the decade. That would be a very big move against “the other greenhouse gas,” if the Liberals can be held accountable on implementation.
2. The future (should be) electrifying
It’s frustrating that none of the parties are yet articulating a clear picture of the energy transition for the public. But the most obvious solution — electrify (almost) everything using clean energy — moved into sharper focus.
All the parties agreed we need to electrify transportation, at least public transit and passenger vehicles like cars and trucks. In the new Parliament, we should get a “zero-emission vehicle standard” like the ones in B.C. and Quebec. That will require rising sales quotas for electric vehicles until gas burners are fully phased out.
A clean grid should be the backbone of our future energy system, and the Liberals also promised a clean electricity standard that would clean Canada’s grid completely. This will be tricky since electricity is provincial jurisdiction, but the feds do have authority on greenhouse gas emissions and so it’s another issue that will require the opposition parties holding the Liberals accountable.
3. All-party consensus is at risk
I never thought I'd be saying this, but part of me wishes Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives had picked up a few more seats in urban and suburban ridings. Climate hawks are fond of saying we need more political will and bravery from political leaders, and O’Toole really stuck his neck out, breaking with Conservative orthodoxy on carbon pricing and climate policy.
O’Toole’s move could be the start of a climate realignment for the Conservative Party, a Canadian version of the process David Cameron catalyzed in the U.K. But now the knives are out for the Conservative leader, and he doesn’t have much obvious evidence that adopting a credible climate policy did the party any good in battleground ridings.
Michael Bernstein, whose group Clean Prosperity has done a lot of work making the case for a robust Conservative climate agenda, compared the situation to exercising to lose weight. “If you don’t lose weight in the first couple of weeks, you don’t blame exercise and stop working out,” he told me. We’ll see soon enough whether enough members of the Conservative Party are willing to stick with the program.
4. The Liberals can be pushed on climate
A minority government is probably the best available outcome from this election. The new promises during the campaign showed the Liberals can be pushed to do more. And a minority government means the opposition parties, particularly the NDP and Bloc Québécois, can hold their feet to the fire if those parties choose to prioritize climate.
The Bloc can be counted on to support climate legislation but not necessarily to push on issues that extend beyond Quebec.
The NDP leadership hasn’t yet made climate change a serious priority, and it cost them. The platform’s lack of substance was severely criticized by climate experts. And polls show that climate-conscious voters were far more likely to vote Liberal than any other party.
The NDP now has an opportunity to prioritize climate in the new Parliament. There will be fierce lobbying against climate legislation and regulations. The Liberals will need to be held to account on a whole range of issues: a Just Transition Act for workers, regulations to clamp down on oil and gas pollution, phasing out public finance for fossil fuels, a ban on coal exports. The NDP can exert pressure to get a robust zero-emission vehicle mandate and counter the influence of the banks on climate finance regulations.
5. The next test is coming soon
In the dying days of the last Parliament, we got a climate accountability act. It requires the government to bring forward a plan to meet Canada’s 2030 targets by the end of this year (and also interim objectives for 2026, thanks to pressure from the opposition parties).
Many of the big-ticket items for such a plan had never been run by the electorate. None of us had ever voted in an election where oil and gas regulations or a $170 carbon price were on the table.
So, the next few months will be important in climate politics. We will find out very soon how many of the new campaign promises the Liberals and opposition parties will deliver.
I’ve heard that the number of links gets overwhelming in the weekly Roundup. This week, I’ll bundle most of them at the end. Feel free to let me know if you prefer this format.
Climate strikes are back
Thousands of students rallied in 84 locations across Canada as the Fridays for Future climate strikes came back in real life. It’s been two years since the massive climate strikes (half a million people in Montreal) had to go online during the pandemic. Cloe Logan and Morgan Sharp teamed up to cover the strikes in Halifax and Toronto: Young activists say this year’s climate strike is more important than ever.
Greta Thunberg rallied an impressive crowd in Berlin just two days before Germans go to the polls.
China won’t fund new coal plants… abroad
From the things are getting less worse department: Xi Jinping announced at the UN that China will stop building and financing coal plants in other countries. China has been by far the largest funder of new coal plants around the world, so the announcement is big news. It would pretty much put an end to international finance for coal plants since Japan and South Korea both made the same commitment earlier this year.
We’re making progress in blunting the growth in new coal plants. Three-quarters of planned new plants have been cancelled since 2015, according to a new analysis released last week.
In the year of the Paris Agreement, 1,553 gigawatts of coal capacity was planned or under construction. Since then, the “pipeline” of new coal plants has shrunk by 76 per cent.
“The world has avoided a 56 per cent expansion of the total global coal fleet ... which would have been equivalent to adding a second China (1,047GW) to global coal capacity,” say the study’s authors.
Quebec may ban all fossil fuel extraction
Quebec has been inching towards an outright ban on oil and gas development. The province doesn’t currently have any commercial projects but several are in the exploratory phase, and the provincial government quashed a major liquefied natural gas proposal in July. Last week, Premier François Legault told the National Assembly: “We are working to ensure that, in the future, there will be no more permits given.”
Not to be outdone, the Quebec Liberal Party says it will take the province out of the fossil fuel industry within five years if it wins the next provincial election. The party is promising to stop issuing permits and "terminate existing development permits" for oil and gas. The QLP also says it will have the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec withdraw all fossil fuel investments. The election will be held in October next year.
Experts have been warning for years that fossil fuels would become “stranded assets.” But Utica Resources is taking the Quebec government to court seeking not only compensation for exploration costs but, incredibly, for unrealized profits.
Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance
Denmark and Costa Rica have formed the world’s first diplomatic alliance to end oil and gas production. BOGA will have its formal launch at this year’s UN climate conference.
Research published in Nature earlier this month found the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves will have to stay in the ground if we are going to have even a 50-50 chance of stabilizing global heating below 1.5 degrees. In Canada, 83 per cent of oil reserves would have to remain unexploited.
Denmark and Costa Rica are now working to persuade other countries to join BOGA before COP26, which will be held in Glasgow this November.
Speaking of COP26, Canada’s National Observer has kicked off a special series leading up to the UN chinwag. You can find out what’s at stake here, meet the young climate leaders helping to set the agenda here and hear about efforts to turn off the taps on fossil subsidies here.
4 in 10 young people hesitant about having kids
Climate anxiety is haunting youth around the world. In a survey of 10,000 young people in 10 countries (Canada wasn’t included), three-quarters agreed that “the future is frightening.” And four in 10 say they’re hesitant about having children.
Caroline Hickman, one of the study’s lead authors, said: “This study paints a horrific picture of widespread climate anxiety in our children and young people. It suggests for the first time that high levels of psychological distress in youth is linked to government inaction. Our children’s anxiety is a completely rational reaction given the inadequate responses to climate change they are seeing from governments. What more do governments need to hear to take action?”
The study was published as a pre-print from The Lancet (meaning it’s still undergoing peer review).
Congress calls Big Oil to testify about climate disinformation
The powerful House Oversight Committee of the U.S. Congress has demanded top executives of lobby groups and big oil companies testify next month and produce internal documents on their efforts to undermine policy and fund disinformation about climate change.
The American Petroleum Institute and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will testify alongside executives from companies like Chevron, Exxon Mobil and BP. The New York Times reports the inquiry is modelled on the tobacco hearings of the 1990s and similarly comes amidst a wave of lawsuits by cities and states alleging oil and gas companies ignored warnings from their own scientists and mounted disinformation campaigns.
World’s biggest tree
Here’s an eerie image that symbolizes so much of the race against climate change. California has the world’s tallest, oldest and biggest trees, and the state has been suffering brutal wildfires, two of which have merged and are burning into Sequoia National Park. Firefighters have wrapped the base of the world’s biggest tree in foil.
At the time of writing, the General Sherman tree is still safe. Sequoias evolved with fire — their bark can be two feet thick and they actually propagate when fires burst their cones. But last year, the Castle Fire killed somewhere between 7,500 and 10,600 giant sequoias.
Maersk CEO calls for ban on fossil ships
Soren Skou is making waves. The head of the world’s biggest marine shipping company called for a “global ‘drop dead date’” for fossil-fuelled container ships.
“The European Commission is proposing to end production of combustion engine cars in 2035. The International Maritime Organization should do the same for fossil-fuelled ships with ambitious targets and measures to decarbonise shipping,” Skou said.
Coast-to-coast record for an electric car
Four days, 19 hours. That’s the record to beat for driving an EV from St. John’s, N.L., to Victoria, B.C. — the longest span across North America.
A few years ago, Harvey and Mary Ann Soicher had a dream to drive their Audi e-tron across the country visiting friends and relatives. Tragically, the trip never happened because Mary Ann died from cancer in 2018. Harvey later made the trip in her memory, driving across Canada and back through the U.S. in 2019.
This year, Harvey teamed up with Kent Rathwell — a fascinating guy whose clean energy journey begins with a Saskatchewan birdseed company that he morphed into an EV-charging network (true story).
The two friends set the record this month to show that fossil-fuelled transportation isn’t needed anymore and raised money along the way for Mary Ann’s favourite charity, the VGH UBC foundation, which funds research into Parkinson’s and functional neurosurgery.
If you’re intrigued and want to hear more of Kent Rathwell’s birdseed story, I’ll leave you with a Green Energy Futures segment from last year.
That’s all for this week. Thank you for reading Zero Carbon. You can email me with your thoughts or suggestions for future newsletters at [email protected].
Links and further reading
Liberals dominate climate vote
See, for example, Abacus Data
Canada’s National Observer, Young activists say this year’s climate strike is more important than ever
Study on the collapsing coal pipeline
Montreal Gazette Quebec looking at banning all fossil fuel extraction in the province
CTV News on the Quebec Liberal Party announcement
Globe and Mail on the lawsuit
Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance
Study on fossil fuel reserves in Nature
Article on the study, published in Canada’s National Observer from Climate Desk
The Lancet pre-print
CEO statement on LinkedIn
Coast-to-coast record in an EV
Updates from the journey on Polarsteps
Green Energy Futures segment on Kent Rathwell
CBC article on the speed record