Which party has the best climate policy?
This question has been central to the brief federal election campaign. Climate experts and commentators have offered perspectives and report cards, most of which point to the all-around strengths of the Liberal Party platform, with the occasional kind words about the feasibility and mere existence of the Conservative platform, or the vague ambition of the NDP platform. I’ll be upfront: I agree with Mark Jaccard, Katharine Hayhoe, Andrew Leach, and my colleague Kathryn Harrison that the Liberal plan appears the strongest.
I am, though, concerned that too much of the policy discussion focuses on the 2030 target. Climate change is all about the long-term. When you take a longer view, the criteria for a feasible or an ambitious plan changes.
To explain, I’ve calculated national emissions pathways which are consistent with a likely (2/3) chance of avoiding different levels of global warming. The analysis is based on the latest global carbon budget data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 6th Assessment Report published in August. My methods follow that of a similar analysis conducted in 2019 with older data. Also, huge thanks to Eric Leinberger from UBC for help with the graphics!
The first analysis uses an equitable distribution of the global carbon budget, in which Canada receives 0.5%, in line with our share of the global population. Why such a small portion of the global budget? We could assign portions based on emissions, rather than population, but that implies that a low-emitting developing nation has to cut emissions at the same rate as a wealthy, high-emitting nation. That would be unfair, and also untenable.
According to this analysis, the party targets for 2030 fall in between the < 2°C pathway and the more moderate < 3°C pathway. Granted, these are just the targets. Whether the policies are sufficient to meet the targets is a separate question, addressed in part below.
Being Canadian, I find it helpful to think of the pathways as ski slopes. The < 3°C pathway is like a blue intermediate run with some black diamond difficult stretches. The < 2°C pathway is a challenging double black diamond full of moguls. If navigated successfully, it brings the country to net-zero around 2050.
The < 1.5°C pathway, unfortunately, is a cliff surrounded by fences and caution signs. This is because the budget remaining for < 1.5°C is equivalent to less than three years of current annual emissions. As much I want deep emissions cuts, to reduce emissions that quickly, if it were even possible, would be unconscionable given how our current energy system works; we’d need to shutter some industries, transportation, power generation, and home heating.
If we chose a less equitable division of the global carbon budget – an intermediate portion (1.1% of the remaining global budget) between the equitable (0.5%) and even (1.6%) portions – the emissions pathways look slightly more realistic. In this less equitable scenario, the parties’ targets fall between the < 1.5°C and the < 2°C pathways, as does the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.
These results paint a stark picture, as I noted in the 2019 analysis. It is likely impossible at this point for Canada to achieve its full “fair share” of emissions reductions to avoid 1.5°C warming, absent large investment in effort in other parts of the world.
I present this for context. The truth is that every action still counts. The more we reduce emissions, the less the planet warms, and the less people suffer. Even if we can’t do our fair share to achieve a selected level of warming, we can still do as much as is feasible to reduce future harm. Given that, the shape of the emissions pathways points to three key criteria for evaluating the party climate plans.
1. Does the plan put Canada on a path to net-zero?
The year 2030 should not be the endpoint in climate policy discussions. The steep pathways show that rather than ask whether the plan achieves the 2030 target, we should ask whether the plan helps Canada accelerate past the 2030 target. To use a baseball analogy, we can’t slide into the first base. We need to round the base and head for second.
This, to me, is where the Conservative Party plan clearly fails. Like others, I’m pleased to see the party release a detailed plan that includes both pricing and regulatory proposals for the first time in its history. The moderate grades in other assessments (5/10 from Jaccard, B/B- from Hayhoe), however, read to me like awards for participation. Too much credit is given for feasibility, and too little attention is paid to sustainability.
First of all, the plan invests in expanding the fossil fuel industry, and features no plan to transition workers from the industry. Given that net-zero pathways show sharply reduced demand for Canadian heavy oil, the plan is the inverse of accelerating beyond 2030.
Second, the plan would not increase the carbon price beyond $50, which means by 2030, the price will be far behind what’s necessary to incite deeper emissions cuts [yes, the plan has a possible increase to $170/ton but that is only if the US also adopts the price, which any casual student of the US Congress knows is not going to happen]. For consumers, the effect of carbon price would also be largely deadened, by converting the price into a feeder for a “low carbon savings account.” Here’s an example how this perverse system would work (my math). At the proposed peak carbon price of $50/ton, a Honda Civic driver would get ~$130/year in the account to spend on things like electric bikes (based on average distance Canadians drive in a year). In other words, it would take 19 years of driving your car to buy a $2,500 e-bike. To get more money, you need to drive more, or drive a less efficient vehicle, and put more greenhouse gases in the air. To use my colleague Kathryn Harrison’s word, the account is a “gimmick,” not a climate policy.
Finally, the Conservative Party appears to be pushing for a return to the previous 2030 target of a 30% reduction below 2005 levels. The above analyses show it is least likely to be in line with achieving Canada’s fair share to avoiding < 2°C warming. Changing the target could also lead to international embarrassment. The new target of -40 to -45% has already been officially submitted to the United Nations, which means a Conservative-led government might arrive at the upcoming climate summit in November asking to weaken the national target, and Canada might win more “fossil of the week” awards.
2. Does the plan feasibly build on existing initiatives?
To feasibly achieve net-zero by mid-century, emissions reductions need to start now. That means we should build on momentum of existing policies and systems, lest we waste even more time. Presuming the government follows democratic norms, new regulatory systems can take years of consultation and planning.
This is my central concern about the NDP plan. While I appreciate the ambition of the plan, it is surprisingly weak on details, and it is very hard to understand how that ambition could be met. The proposal to develop regulations for each sector, and to change the output-based pricing system used to protect Canadian industries, will take years of consultation and risk stalling ongoing progress. The output-based pricing system, in which the carbon price is only charged above an average emissions rate for that industry, may look from the outside like a way to “protect polluters” but is actually an elegant way to create an incentive for reducing emissions without risking loss of jobs and business to other countries. Given how long it has taken for the federal government to take tangible action on climate change, it seems wiser to build on all the work of the current government, rather than to start from scratch on new systems.
Note: This concern can also be applied to aspects of the Conservative plan, especially the low carbon savings account, which could take years to establish.
3. How does the plan help the rest of the world respond to climate change?
Given the rapidly shrinking carbon budget for avoiding 1.5°C warming, the next government needs a plan to help more vulnerable nations prepare for a warmer world. Elections tend to focus on domestic policies, so it is not a surprise that none of the parties capable of forming a government have been vocal about international initiatives. Here, we can at least hope that the next government represents the country well at COP26, the upcoming and pandemic-delayed climate summit, and supports more climate finance for the developing world and greater efforts of adaptation capacity building.
Whatever happens in this election, I ask that all Canadians keep pushing their representatives, whatever the party, to keep their eyes on the long-term goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. We need plans that are feasible and ambitious. Interim targets are there to help build momentum to the ultimate objective – rounding the bases and heading for home.