Liberals Announce Commitments on Climate Action: Whom Do They Target?

September 30, 2019

Last week, in the lead-up to a day of climate marches in Canada’s largest cities – and as Liberals aimed to flip the page from Mr. Trudeau’s brown face/ black face controversy – Justin Trudeau and his team released a flurry of details on the Liberal climate change policy commitments. Announcements began on Tuesday morning with Catherine McKenna, the Liberal candidate for Ottawa Centre and Minister of Environment and Climate Change for four years under the Trudeau Government. Ms. McKenna unveiled a number of environment-related pledges on behalf of her Party. Most notably, the Liberals committed to achieving net-zero GHG emissions nationally by 2050 if re-elected. This goes beyond the previous Liberal commitment of reducing emissions 80% by 2050 on 2005 levels.

Two hours later, Mr. Trudeau announced that if re-elected, the Liberals will cut corporate taxes by 50% for clean technology companies that support the zero-emissions economy. Mr. Trudeau mentioned specifically companies that produce batteries for electric vehicles or that manufacture equipment related to solar energy. The Liberals would defer the setting of a definition of the applicability criteria to be determined through a science-based process, in collaboration with the Standards Council of Canada, the National Research Council, Sustainable Technology Development Canada, and other experts.

Both messages were about the need to increase ambition over time. The announcement came as global leaders concluded the Climate Action Summit in New York where 65 countries and the European Union similarly committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. It also came as the world geared up for major youth demonstrations last week, including in cities across Canada, inspired by activist Greta Thunberg.

The timeline of the announcements last week was politically calculated to capitalize on voter attention on the climate change front. But the announcements also provided necessary risk mitigation on what could have been a second week in a row of crisis management. Liberals have lost some support of “climate change” voters when compared to 2015 in light of the purchase of the TMX pipeline.  In fairness, the Liberals have pursued aggressive measures on climate change such as legislating a price on carbon, developing a clean fuel standard, accelerating the phase-out of coal-fired electricity, and supporting energy efficiency and electric vehicles through incentives. At the end of their first mandate, Liberals have positioned Canada at 75% of the way to our Paris Agreement targets, according to Mr. Trudeau.

Releasing their pledges to revamp climate change action was timely. It provided necessary backing for Mr. Trudeau and Liberal candidates to participate in the marches, and potentially gain support from voting segments that were key to their success in 2015. These global marches called for transformational change to the status quo. Had measures not been released ahead of the marches, Liberals ran the risk of being called hypocritical, potentially framed as being part of the problem.

The Liberal party campaign announcements on climate change last week contain ambitious targets but measures to reach those targets remain loosely defined.

Besides the tax cuts and the increased carbon abatement ambition, measures announced include a commitment to legislating legally binding, five-year milestones based on the advice of a panel made up of scientists, economists, and experts to recommend the best path to get to net-zero emissions. Ms. McKenna highlighted that the government “needs experts to help show us the path to get there. We need to help workers…we need ambition. We need targets. And we need to discuss the path to get us there.”

Further, last Wednesday, the Liberals announced their 2019 energy efficiency commitments. The new measures focus on homeowners. Key themes highlighted in the announcement included (1) energy affordability, pursued through reducing energy costs via greener homes and (2) helping Canadians adapt to the rising costs associated with a changing climate. Measures included interest free loans for home retrofits of up to $40,000 and a net zero homes grant of up to $5,000 to help buyers of newly built homes that are certified-zero emissions. These policies are geared to “the middle-class” voter who owns a home and is concerned about climate change, but also to the half of Canadians that are not particularly keen on footing the bill for emissions reductions.

On energy affordability, Mr. Trudeau’s messaging interestingly merged the objectives of taking bold climate action, while also utilizing energy efficiency to lower energy costs—a big ticket item in battleground Ontario. The direction in which the province votes, particularly in the 905 region, will likely determine the outcome of the election.

On Thursday the Liberals committed to conserve and protect 25% of our land and oceans by 2025 — and work towards 30% by 2030. The Liberals have been successful in increasing the percentage of marine areas conserved and protected in the last mandate and therefore have credibility on this item.  However, all parties have unveiled strong commitments on conservation, the difference lies on the level of ambition.  

Finally, on Friday the Liberals pledged to plant 2 billion trees over ten years if re-elected. The measure will create 3,500 seasonal jobs according to the Liberals. The planting of two billion trees would certainly have a tangible outcome in emissions by increasing carbon sequestration sizably.  However, Liberals would have done well in capping the week with the announcement of measures that signaled a commitment to changing the status quo. For example, targets for low emitting vehicles, as Mr. StevenGuilbeaultadvised the Government years before becoming a Liberal candidate, may have had a bigger impact. Mr. Trudeau did remind voters on Friday that his Government pledged to re-invest all proceeds from TMX pipelines onto action on climate change.

The Liberals are committed to ambitious targets, but will the measures announced so far be successful in persuading the climate change vote that Mr. Trudeau can lead the kind of transformational change required to meet them?

The pledge to legally binding five-year milestones based on advice from an expert panel is an astute political measure that provides political coverage to the tough decisions that may be required down the road—in an eventual second mandate—pertaining to high emitting sectors and other incentives. However, the announcements offered few details in terms of new funding or specific policy measures to reach the goals.  

The Liberals argue that the route to carbon neutrality has not yet been carved, therefore specifics ought to be left for the expert panel to recommend. However, in omitting specific measures the Liberals fall short on the kind of bold commitments that millennials would like to see. In contrast, policies that Greens and NDP have committed to, such as banning any new pipelines or creating a climate change bank to “pursue the bold investment required to meet the climate challenge”, respectively have played very well with millennials and climate change voters.

Further, while ambitious, the Liberals have largely ignored the fact that the country is not on track to meet its 2030 reduction commitments, nor is it currently on track to meet the 80% target set for 2050.  Upping the commitment is laudable from an environmental perspective, but has less credibility given the lack of achieving the goals already set.

The Liberals know this and therefore have focused on drawing a contrast with Conservatives. During Tuesday’s press conference, Mr. Trudeau mentioned Ontario Premier Doug Ford numerous times. Liberals will hope that the voting groups mentioned above will buy-in to the contrast and turn out to vote strategically. However, hoping for the strategic vote is a gamble. Should Liberals desire to up their prospects with millennials and climate voters, additional measures that demonstrate transformational ambition ought to be considered through the release of their full campaign platform.