COMMENTARY: A voter’s guide to climate action

Click to play video: 'What can Canadians do to avert climate crisis?'
What can Canadians do to avert climate crisis?
WATCH: (Aug. 11, 2021) Environmental Defence’s Senior Climate and Energy Program Manager Julia Levin breaks down the latest UN climate change report ‘Code Red for Humanity’ and the need to take action to avert the disaster. – Aug 11, 2021

New poll data shows a surge in the number of Canadians who want urgent climate action. There’s been a dramatic shift in public opinion over the past year — as a country, we’re more in agreement than ever about the need to act.

Now, we’re directly observing the effects of climate change. This summer, an unprecedented heat wave in Western Canada has led to wildfires, drought, and the deaths of hundreds of people. Climate scientists are telling us that if we don’t act, this could be just the beginning.

That’s why the upcoming federal election is a critical one for the future of the climate, and why it’s important for Canadian voters to understand the parties’ climate plans.

You might be considering a range of daunting election proposals and wondering which federal party presents the best solutions. Here are some tips on what to look for when considering climate-action proposals.

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First off, a credible plan needs to meet — and preferably exceed — Canada’s commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement. Canada agreed to reduce its emissions 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, but climate science is now telling us that we actually need to do much more. The world needs to cut its emissions nearly in half by 2030 if we want to stay below the critical 1.5 C warming threshold.

Click to play video: 'Economic think tank: Canada can meet emissions targets'
Economic think tank: Canada can meet emissions targets

Once we start, we’ve got to keep right on cutting. A credible climate plan needs to go beyond the 2030 targets to show how we’ll reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Net-zero means that whatever carbon we put into the atmosphere is cancelled out, for example by sucking carbon out of the air and storing it underground.

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A plan isn’t very helpful if you don’t keep track of the progress towards your goal, and hold yourself accountable for hitting your targets. To be effective, a climate plan needs measurement and accountability. Earlier this year Canada brought in the Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act to do just that, but voters are going to have to make sure that politicians uphold this law or propose something better.

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Actually achieving those ambitious emissions-reduction targets is a whole other story, and to do that we’re looking for political parties that propose the most effective policies to reduce our emissions. We’ll need a lot of different approaches to solve this megatonne-sized problem, but there’s one policy that stands out for its ability to rapidly cut emissions at the lowest cost: carbon pricing. Any credible climate plan needs to include a price on carbon.

Click to play video: 'O’Toole risks alienating Conservative base with carbon pricing plan'
O’Toole risks alienating Conservative base with carbon pricing plan

Most everyone who has studied solutions to the climate problem, from the world’s leading economists to the CEOs of Canada’s major energy companies, agrees that carbon pricing is the most cost-effective way to bring down emissions. Right now we have a federal carbon tax and rebate system that returns 100 per cent of the proceeds to households and businesses, making climate action affordable for Canadians.

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When you’re deciding who to vote for, consider whether they have a sound carbon pricing plan at the core of their climate platform. To be effective, the carbon price should continue to increase over time for both industry and households, and the revenues should be returned to Canadians to keep the policy affordable.

By making it more expensive to pollute, carbon pricing acts like a key that unlocks other tools and technologies that we need to reduce our emissions. One of the most obvious effects of the carbon tax is to incentivize people to buy more electric vehicles. But that means greater demand for electricity, so look for climate plans that commit to expanding Canada’s generating capacity — with clean renewable energy, of course.

Click to play video: 'Southern Alberta witnessing unprecedented surge in renewable energy projects'
Southern Alberta witnessing unprecedented surge in renewable energy projects

Reducing emissions from transport is critical. You’ll want to look for a climate plan that mandates a rapidly increasing share of zero-emission vehicles on our roads — including both light-duty passenger vehicles and heavy-duty transport trucks. All light-duty vehicle sales need to be 100 per cent zero-emission no later than 2035, and we need government support to roll out the charging infrastructure to power them. Party platforms need to address this.

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Not just transportation, but lots of other high-emitting sectors will need to cut their emissions in short order. Two of the big ones are buildings and heavy industry — together with transportation, they account for well more than half of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

A smart climate plan should commit to prompt energy-efficiency retrofits of Canadian buildings. We need to retrofit as many as 10 million buildings by 2050, meaning that climate policy should stimulate hundreds of thousands of retrofits per year. Upfront financing is the challenge here, so government loans and grants will be essential. It’s not going to be cheap — a credible climate plan needs to allocate billions of dollars in annual funding to this objective.

Click to play video: 'Scientists say top Canadian climate risks are Buildings, coastlines, the North'
Scientists say top Canadian climate risks are Buildings, coastlines, the North

To zero out emissions from industry, look for government investments that help companies switch to low-carbon energy and more efficient methods of production. This includes funding for innovative emissions-reduction pilot projects, new infrastructure like hydrogen pipelines, and retrofits to heavy industry — the switch to electric arc furnaces currently underway in the Canadian steel industry is a good example. A solid climate plan should also include big investments in carbon capture, since there are important industries that will need extra help to eliminate their emissions, like cement for example.

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These are some of the most important approaches to addressing climate change, but by no means is it an exhaustive list. Voters have a big job ahead of them when it comes to judging party platforms and promises — but it’s important work. The stakes have never been higher.

Michael Bernstein is the executive director of Clean Prosperity, a Canadian non-profit that works toward market-based solutions to the climate crisis. He serves on the C.D. Howe Institute’s Energy Policy Council, as a member of the Public Policy Forum’s Energy Future Forum.

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