Reducing GHG Emissions: What the Major Parties have to Say

By Inger Weibust

The NDP and Conservative parties announced their full party platforms on October 9th. All the major parties’ platforms mention climate change however, except for the Green Party, none squarely address the causes of Canada’s rising emissions. Furthermore, none of the parties platforms wholeheartedly embraces economists’ solution of pricing carbon as the lowest cost response to this challenge.

The Conservative Party

The CPC platform brushes aside the need for Canada to act on climate change, touting that Canada only contributes 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, as per capita CO2 emitters, we are among the highest in the world and in the top five for developed countries. If we don’t have any obligation to reduce, why does anybody else?

The Conservatives have rejected market mechanisms such as cap and trade or a carbon tax, which the official platform calls “job-killing”. As with the rest of the platform, they are staying the course. In 2007, they announced they favoured a sector by sector regulatory approach to air pollutants. However, regulations to reduce GHG emissions from bitumen (tar sands) production have yet to be formally proposed, even though they announced the intention to regulate over 2 years ago. According to the federal government’s own environmental watchdog, draft regulations for oil and gas have been developed but shown only to industry groups and one provincial government. (http://ottawacitizen.com/news/politics/federal-government-wont-meet-climate-change-promises-on-current-path-watchdog-says) The Harper government has also abandoned and revised emissions targets several times over, because there was zero chance we would meet these targets.

The official platform is an exercise in misdirection, pointing to a ban on the construction of coal-fired electricity generators. This is a tactic of pointing to emissions cuts where we had few to cut, unlike countries that rely heavily on coal-fired electricity generation. A large proportion and the fastest growing part of our GHG emissions is from bitumen production, sufficient to swamp all the reductions achieved in other sectors. The platform also states that Canada is a leader in clean technology, a distraction if it doesn’t actually result in emissions reductions.

Having been in power almost a decade, the Conservatives biggest problem is a lack of credibility. Why have they not enacted anything significant and effective in that time?

The Liberal Party

The official Liberal platform is vague on key points and not well thought through. They will announce emissions targets. They propose putting a price on carbon, by partnering with provincial governments, promising that provinces will have the flexibility to set their own carbon prices. In addition, they propose a $2 billion fund for low carbon emissions projects. (https://www.liberal.ca/files/2015/10/New-plan-for-a-strong-middle-class.pdf)

There are several problems with this. It ignores the, to date, insurmountable differences between provincial economies that have made provincial consensus impossible. The Liberals were unable to reach a consensus solution among provinces; more recently, the provinces themselves were unable to agree to a common climate change or energy policy. The rapid growth of oil sands emissions from Alberta and Saskatchewan has swamped all the emissions reductions achieved thus far by provinces such as Ontario and Quebec. Thus if provinces have flexibility in setting a price, how low can they set that price? Furthermore, by tonne of CO2 emissions reduced, subsidies are going to be prohibitively expensive and unlikely to achieve significant emissions reductions. If a carbon tax or cap and trade system were set high enough, those subsidies would be redundant because investors’ calculations would begin to favour low carbon energy sources.

The New Democratic Party

The NDP’s climate change policy proposals are relatively detailed. The cornerstone is a a national cap and trade program, limited to major emitters. They indicate that they will recognize and build upon existing provincial initiatives and revenues from carbon pricing would be returned to the originating provinces for investment in GHG reduction plans. A national cap and trade program would likely build upon Ontario and Quebec’s scheme for emissions trading. The NDP indicates that provinces could opt out of national carbon pricing if their provincial scheme meets or exceeds federal standards. It is not clear whether Alberta’s existing levy on the oil and gas sector would make the cut.

The NDP proposes to transition to a greener economy and cleaner technologies. The platform proposes federal subsidies for infrastructure and public transit. A notable innovation is a proposal for Green Bonds to enable financing of clean energy development, climate resilient infrastructure and commercial retrofits. An economist would likely point out that, if we had a real price on carbon, there would be a strong business case for such investments and no special fund would be required.

The plan does not squarely face the very difficult question of how to curb our fastest growing source of emissions, Western Canada’s oil and gas sector, without losing economic growth or requiring the rest of Canada to subsidize reductions in the oil patch.

Thomas Mulcair pledges to introduce a home retrofit program in his first 100 days in office.   Per unit of GHG emissions reduced, such strategies are very expensive and cost the government, instead of generating government revenue.

The Green Party

As one would expect, the Green Party platform, unveiled in September, is the most ambitious on climate change. It proposes the virtual elimination of fossil fuels by mid-century. It is also the only platform to grab the oil sands bull by the horns, although even the Green Party is pulling its punches somewhat, by arguing for a halt to further oil sands expansion, rather than rolling back current production. (Current world prices for oil are likely to halt expansion, by making it uneconomical). The party says existing jobs would be protected and that the recently laid off should be retrained. The platform opposes all new raw bitumen exports, which suggests they might be open to exports that have been processed in Canada. They indicate that the Green Party will create jobs by creating refining capacity; how is not spelled out. If refining in Canada is economical, why does it not occur? If it is not economical, how many millions would a Green federal government be prepared to spend to create it, and at how many hundreds of thousands per job created? (Those who like this idea: Google “Come by Chance refinery”). Economists would look more favourably on the party’s proposal to eliminate all fossil fuel subsidies.

The Green Party rejects having a patchwork approach to carbon pricing, favouring one national price on carbon. Eschewing the word “tax”, the platform calls for a Carbon Fee that would generate a dividend paid directly to individuals. The platform goes on to praise the BC carbon tax for, among other things, incentivizing investment in green technology. Paying each resident of Canada a carbon dividend will not do that; it will put cash in people’s pockets, more likely to go towards hockey tickets than green technology.

Some elements of the Green Party platform are counterproductive for climate change. There is little empirical evidence to support the claim that local foods have a smaller carbon footprint. In the lifecycle analysis of most foods, carbon emissions from transportation are smaller than those from inputs such as fertilizer, heating greenhouses, driving tractors etc. For example, despite the UK’s relatively favourable climate, the greenhouse gas emissions of consuming New Zealand lamb in the UK are lower than those of UK raised lamb, despite the considerable food miles travelled.

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