Canada primed for climate comeback, says Harper foe

Election win for frontrunner Liberals would restore reputation battered by incumbent, says ex-opposition leader Stephane Dion


Justin Trudeau, the son of a former prime minister, is poised to end Stephen Harper’s nine-year rule polls indicate (Flickr/ Joseph Morris)

By Alex Pashley

“If we get the mandate, Canada is back.”

That was the message on Friday of the man who faced off with prime minister Stephen Harper between 2006 and 2008, Stephane Dion.

The Liberal Party, to which the Quebec lawmaker belongs, could end the Conservative leader’s long tenure on Monday if it holds its slim lead in the polls.

A victory for centrist Justin Trudeau, 43, would allow the country to rebuild bridges with international partners in UN climate talks this December, Dion told Climate Home.

“He will go to Paris at COP21. He will bring the premiers of provinces that want to come, and they will say to the world: We are back with solutions to take on climate change.”

Analysis: Why Canada’s provinces are fighting the Feds on climate

Ten years ago at a Montreal conference, countries finally put into force the soon-to-be-superseded Kyoto Protocol steered by Dion, then environment minister.

A year later in 2006, Harper romped to victory.

A “decade of climate denial” ensued, according to Tony Clarke, president of the Polaris Institute, an advocacy group in capital Ottawa.

Harper promised to slash greenhouse gases 20% by 2020, and a laudable 65% by 2050.

But then he resisted regulation of its tar sands, dirty deposits of bitumen that mainly lie in Alberta.

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Blowing through its climate goals as emissions soared, Harper junked Canada’s Kyoto membership. Environmental agencies were watered down.

Ottawa had done “virtually nothing” to fulfil its promises, said Mark Jaccard, a professor at Simon Fraser University who graded Harper a “Fail” in his scorecard, which he has written for two decades.

As Canada became a pariah, provinces like Quebec and Ontario dissented and took climate action into their own hands. They put a price on pollution and moved to phase down coal-fired power stations.


Canada tar sands are the world’s third largest proven reserves of oil (Flickr/ The Cooperative)

The PM’s package of regulation on coal plants and vehicle fuel standards only take effect from 2020, and are woefully insufficient to bring about the radical energy transformation it needs.

Leading the field ahead of leftwingers New Democratic Party and the Greens, Trudeau is in favour of a nationwide carbon price, spending on low-carbon infrastructure, and reviewing contentious oil pipeline plans.

But Liberals’ manifesto pledges don’t quite add up to the rhetoric, warned Polaris Institute’s Clarke. “You could drive a truck through their platform. They are playing the process card rather than being too specific on content so as not to get trapped.”

Much hinges on whether they clinch a majority in parliament, or have to form a minority government with the NDP, in crafting a strong environmental stance.

The NDP, which won a shock provincial election in oil-rich Alberta this year, has said Canada’s climate pledges aren’t fit for purpose and need to be toughened up. The Green Party under Elizabeth May goes further.

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In its submission to a UN climate deal to be inked in Paris in December, the federal government promised to cut carbon 30% by 2030 compared with 2005 levels, or a 2% cut below 1990.

Green groups criticised it for a lack of information about its tackling its tar sands.

“Fraught with difficulties, including substantial potential for double counting,” was the verdict of analysts Climate Action Tracker.

With existing policies, Canada’s release of heat-trapping gases will rise 35% above 1990 levels, CAT suggest.

But improving Harper’s low commitments would be a “mistake”, argued the Liberals’ Dion.

“You must understand Canada is a federation where provinces have a lot of powers regarding natural resources. They have the constitutional power to resist.” Working with provinces, rather than handing down deeper emissions cuts, was a better strategy.

Oil boom drying up

Alberta’s new governor Rachel Notley has raised extraction levies and vowed to review royalty payments from oil and gas companies.

Though with a collapse in global energy prices, the engine of economic growth is in stasis after splurging $200 billion in investment since 2000, the New York Times reported. Thousands of jobs have been shed.

The world’s fifth-largest energy producer, Canada entered a mild recession earlier this year. Concern abounds on high consumer debt.

“Anxiety with any kind of changes in government are heightened by the current commodity price environment,” Alex Ferguson, a vice president at the Canadian Association for Petroleum Producers, a trade lobby, told Climate Home.

Ferguson said the industry is taking serious steps to lower emissions and its carbon price of $15 a tonne is “more stringent” than some European jurisdictions. But to get serious on climate action, toning down oil production is key.

Canada's prime minister Stephen Harper (Flickr / creative commons)

Stephen Harper is bidding for a record fourth term on Oct 19 (credit: Creative commons)

Canada’s third-largest proven reserves could become “stranded” under long-term aspirations to rid the economy of fossil fuels and limit global warming to 2C.

Most Canadians say the country should do more to combat global warming, according to a recent survey by Vote Compass. Over half support slapping a price on pollution.

That makes Karel Mayrand, Quebec director at the environmentalist David Suzuki Foundation, adamant Ottawa will take a more hawkish position in the future.

“Using environment as a wedge issue, the same as Republicans do in the US, hasn’t got [the Conservatives] much traction,” he told Climate Home. “I would expect if they lose the election, a new leader would try to re-centre it more in line with what Canadians think.”

Investing faith in Trudeau as Canada’s white hope on climate might be dangerous, though the change is sure to be symbolic among countries at the critical Paris summit.

“The basis of the Canada position may not change, but it would be a huge relief for the international community to see it no longer obstruct negotiations,” Mayrand added.

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