As Canadians get ready to head to the polls, here’s what you should know about the federal parties’ plans to reduce Canada’s GHG emissions

In the lead up to election day (October 19), the economy, immigration, and employment have all taken turns occupying the national conversation. Granted, these are important topics, but their time in the limelight has left little room for other equally important topics to be discussed. The environment, and more specifically climate change, has been relegated to the backburner in many of the federal debates — even as the impacts of climate change begin to hit closer to home than ever before.

I have some sympathy for our political parties when it comes to climate change. They are used to splitting the difference between saying what they believe and what voters want to hear.

But when it comes to climate change, we must acknowledge a third party in the conversation — reality. And like a curmudgeonly dinner guest, reality is always saying the same thing: By failing to act now, we risk a future of dangerous climate change.

Scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global scientific body that synthesizes and distills climate science for the world, suggest what we must do to avert dangerous climate change. According to the IPCC, developed countries must reduce GHGs by at least 25 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 per cent by 2050.

The science is beginning to find traction in the courts. Recently, a Dutch court set a global precedent by ordering the Netherlands to meet the 25 per cent target for GHG reductions by 2020, as opposed to the lower target for which it was on track. The Dutch government has now said it will comply with the court’s ruling.

Canada agreed to the need for “deep cuts” in GHG emissions in the 2010 Cancun Agreements, but its current target of 17 per cent emission reductions by 2020 from 2005 levels is by no means a deep cut. Alas, we are not on track to meet even that weak target. And proposed pipeline infrastructure and tar sands expansion will all but guarantee that Canada’s emissions continue to soar.

This points to the importance of setting an aggressive target and employing effective legal means to make sure the target is actually met. So with this in mind, let’s take stock of who’s promising what on climate change in this election:

Bloc Québécois

The Bloc supports a federal GHG emissions limit that would keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. This is the level above which we risk dangerous climate change.

The Bloc supports Québec’s cap and trade scheme, and suggests it could form the basis for a national market.

Conservative Party of Canada

The Conservative platform does not mention climate change. However their GHG reduction targets can be found in official government policy. Under the Conservative government, Canada has targeted a 17 per cent reduction from 2005 levels by 2020 and a 30 per cent reduction from 2005 levels by 2030. Prime Minister Harper also signed the 2015 G7 Leaders’ Declaration, which endorsed a “common vision” for reducing GHG emissions near the upper end of the 40-70 per cent range below 2010 levels by 2050.

The Conservatives use sector-specific regulations as the legal mechanism for reducing GHG emissions. The problem is that Canada’s largest source of carbon pollution — the oil and gas sector — has yet to be regulated. This will prevent Canada from achieving our 2020 reduction target, according to the government’s own projections. The Conservatives’ election platform does not include a plan to regulate the oil and gas sector.

Green Party of Canada

The Green Party is the only party to put clear GHG reduction targets in their election platform. It has promised a short-term GHG reduction target of 40 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025 and a long-term target of 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

The Greens would introduce a national carbon “fee and dividend” regime to ensure reduction targets are met. In legal terms, a “fee” would be placed (in some way) on carbon and the revenues generated would be paid out to Canadians in annual “dividend” cheques. The effect would likely resemble British Columbia’s successful carbon tax.

Liberal Party of Canada

The Liberal platform sets no national targets for GHG emission reductions. Rather, it says these targets will be set later, in consultation with the provinces and territories. The targets must recognize the need for Canada to do its part to prevent greater than 2 degrees Celsius warming.

The legal mechanisms for ensuring carbon pollution reductions are also to-be-determined. Though the Liberal platform again pledges to work with the provinces and territories, and pays specific mention to provincial carbon-pricing policies.

New Democrat Party

The NDP platform does not set GHG reduction targets per se, but it does promise to pass the Climate Change Accountability Act  into law if elected. In its most recent form, that Act proposes to legislate a medium-term GHG reduction target of 34 per cent below 1990 levels by 2025, and a long-term target of 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050.

Importantly, the Act also requires the government to plot the trajectory of GHG emission reductions over time. The Minister of Environment would be required present a plan to Parliament with targets for 2020, 2025, 2030, 2035, 2040 and 2045. The plan would have to specify the scientific, economic and technological evidence and analysis used to establish each target. And it would have to be reviewed every five years, or in light of any “carbon budget” established for Canada in an international agreement.

The NDP would implement its targets through a national cap-and-trade system. This system might take the form of a regulation under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which already designates the six most important GHGs as “toxic substances”. A province could opt out of the national system, but only if their provincial GHG reduction regime produced reductions equal to or greater than those required under the national system. In other words, the national system would provide a “floor” that provinces could go beyond, but not below.

Looking ahead

Climate change is a serious problem that must be taken seriously by our elected officials. During the United Nations climate change conference in Paris this December, Canada will have the opportunity to show the world an aggressive GHG reduction target and a credible plan for achieving it.

We need our federal government to take action on climate change and reduce Canada’s emissions now. So when you head to the polls on October 19, make sure you know where the candidates in your riding stand on climate change, and vote for someone you can trust to stand up for a healthy environment and low-carbon future that benefits us all.

Photo by Asif A. Ali via Flickr