Platform Primer: Environment

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Platform Primer: Environment

In the run-up to the federal election on May 2, we’ll be comparing the major parties’ platforms on issues that matter to urban voters.

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Each party’s key messages, according their respective colours. Image by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.


In spite of our penchant for clubbing baby seals and drowning ducks in toxic sludge, polls routinely suggest that environmental issues are important to Canadians. While it’s a topic that’s largely taken a back seat in this campaign, all the party platforms devote a fair bit of real estate to blowing their own eco-horns and making commitments to future greenery.

Conservatives

A key source of Tory pride is their expansion of the national park system; they have committed to growth of 133,000 square kilometres in only four years. Of particular interest to Torontonians is their recent pledge to create a new national park in the Rouge Valley just east of Toronto, which would be the most urban national park in the country and a move for which local environmental groups have been lobbying for years.
Besides providing a federally funded wilderness area where your iDevices will still get a signal, the Conservatives will “expand the use of digital and multimedia technologies to help connect Canadians to nature”—which generally speaking is exactly the opposite of what people use digital technologies to do.
The Tories are also promising to extend the ecoENERGY Retrofit Homes program, to provide grants of up to $5,000 to homeowners who make improvements that increase the energy efficiency of their homes.
It would be an understatement to say that the Conservative government’s efforts on combating climate change have been unimpressive—it’s their devotion to the Alberta oil sands that led British journalist George Monbiot to dub Canada “a thuggish petro-state” controlled by “tar-barons.” While Monbiot is prone to hyperbole, it’s a fact that the oil sands that are turning northern Alberta into a Mordor-esque wasteland are also driving much of Canada’s poor record on greenhouse gases.
About which, a little history: in 1996, the then-Liberal government signed onto the Kyoto Accord and agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 6 per cent below 1990 levels during the period from 2008 to 2012. Emissions continued to rise throughout the Liberal regime regardless. Not long after the Tories came to power in 2006, they made it clear they had no intention of living up to our Kyoto commitments, and would reduce emissions through a “made in Canada” plan. In 2009, they stated that Canada would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20 per cent from 2006 levels by 2020 and 60–70 per cent by 2050. In January 2010, finding even that modest goal too onerous, the Harper government announced that our non-binding commitment under the Copenhagen Accord commitment (a conference at which our conduct was awarded the “Fossil of the Year” award by a group of environmental organizations) would see Canada drop emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020.
Will the latest promise be the one that sticks? Critics have observed that with no detailed or funded plan in place, it’s unlikely that even even this modest ambition can be realized. Even the government’s own numbers indicate that by 2020 Canada’s emissions will be 29 per cent higher than what was agreed at Copenhagen. On the plus side, maybe we’ll be able to grow grapefruit in Inuvik.

Liberals

The little-understood idea of a carbon tax was disastrous for Liberal hopes in the 2008 campaign, not to say Stephane Dion’s career, so they’ve been more wary this time in promoting their eco-agenda. That said, environmental initiatives remain a big part of the Grit platform.
The Liberals say they’ll make “clean resources” one of their “Canadian Champion Sectors,” which means they’ll fund research to let us strip-mine the country without getting booed out of the next climate change conference.
The platform also goes on at length about their Canadian Clean Energy Partnership, which is described as “inviting provincial and territorial governments, the private sector and stakeholders to work together” to improve energy efficiency, build a greentech industry, and fight climate change. This is the kind of motherhood statement that sounds good, but requires more detail to be credible.
The Grits are also promising a Green Renovation Tax Credit, which would be similar in concept to the Tories’ eco-Energy program in rewarding homeowners for upgrades that save energy.
On the greenhouse gas front, the Grits are talking tough. Specifically, Ignatieff and team say they will deliver a long-term greenhouse gas reduction target of 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. However, they offer no interim targets and as noted above, the Liberal record on keeping commitments on emissions is dubious.
Green as they are, the Libs are not prepared to abandon the oil sands, but rather to “[a]ccelerate development and deployment of technologies that will reduce all environmental impacts, including the carbon footprint, of oil sands development, with a goal of eliminating the 15 percent differential compared to conventional oil”—or in other words to find some as yet non-existent technology that will make us no dirtier than, say, Saudi Arabia. They also propose to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, although there are no details or timeline provided.
Key to the Liberal greenhouse gas reduction plans would be a cap-and-trade system that would place a price on carbon emissions for industry, and allow emission permits to be traded on an open market. (Tory environment minister John Baird recently called this plan “un-Canadian,” because it pits different regions of the country against one another. Unlike now.) Systems like this work elsewhere, but it would remain to be seen how quickly it could be implemented and with what degree of success.

NDP

The NDP have touted themselves as eco-warriors since the Green Party were still twinkles in a hippie’s hash pipe, which hasn’t always coexisted easily with their status as allies of large industrial unions. However, with everyone on the green bandwagon these days, the New Democrats are free to be as earth-friendly as they want.
They’re much less verbose than the Liberals (who have a tendency to ramble) when talking about the environment, so their promises are easier to summarize. Basically they would put federal money into clean and renewable power, while subsidizing conservation initiatives at a personal and corporate level
Like the Liberals, they propose to implement a cap-and-trade system to place hard limits on emissions from industrial polluters. The end-game, climate-wise, is to adopt their proposed Climate Change Accountability Act, which would commit Canada to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a level 80 per cent below that of 1990 by the year 2050, with interim targets to be established.
The downside of all these green dreams is, as ever, funding. Since most of the specific commitments are intended to be paid for out of revenues from the cap-and-trade system, if that comes online slowly it’s unclear where the money would be found. Jack Layton has acknowledged that if revenues don’t turn up as quickly as hoped then some plans would be put on hold, but so far hasn’t said which ones.

Green Party

Not surprisingly, the Green Party has a comprehensive environmental strategy mapped out. Although in recent years they’ve proven themselves more than a one trick eco-pony, unlike the the other parties which have an environmental policy within their platform, the Greens have essentially built a platform around environmental policy. Virtually every platform element has green components built into it, making the overall plan difficult to turn into a short synopsis,
In a nutshell, the Greens want to shift to taxation policies that penalize polluters and reward the energy-thrifty. The platform says that such an approach would be neutral for the average taxpayer, while driving more environmentally responsible behaviour.
Other key planks are the elimination of nuclear energy, a cleaner approach to resource production, support for green business start-ups, and a food policy that encourages local and organic production.
On the climate change front, the Greens are predictably ambitious. They propose to reduce Canadian emissions 30 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, and to 85 per cent below 1990 levels by 2040. Key here is the plan to pursue these goals “regardless of what other countries do”—since international bickering over who should do what has been a major source of delay in getting climate deals worked out.
The Greens include a relatively detailed budget in their platform, which the other parties don’t. However, given that Green ideas around revenue and expenditures are largely untried, it’s hard to assess the accuracy of their numbers.

The Upshot

The Tories, with their emphasis on national parks, have a quaint retro approach, harking back to a time when the environment was something you took a trip in the car to go see. In terms of climate change, they currently have no credibility and don’t seem to care much anyway. The Liberals, in keeping with their all-things-to-all-people style, have a lengthy wish list of eco-initiatives, but cost and commitment will be issues. Their record on climate change emissions is as abysmal as the Tories.
The NDP also talk a good line and seem to mean it. If Jack Layton’s new-found status as national prom king translates into more seats, it will be interesting to see what they do.
The Greens have far and away the most ambitious and holistic program. If they can gain some voter traction this time around, we can hope that other parties will take some of their ideas and run with them.

For more on the federal election, check out our politics hub, with a complete guide to every riding in Toronto. For all the details on their policy plans, also check out the platforms of the Conservative Party, the Green Party, the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party.

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