Scheer’s climate plan more about election strategy than reducing emissions?

CPC climate strategy axes carbon pricing, replaces it with regulations, technology subsidies – which Canadians prefer, according to opinion poll

Economists and environmentalists hate the Conservative climate plan, unveiled Wednesday, but Andrew Scheer may have tapped into how Canadians really feel about climate policy: climate mitigation should cost nothing, be as convenient and painless as possible, the heavy lifting should be done by someone else, and we hate carbon taxes.

The Conservative Party of Canada has the highest proportion of “climate laggards” (25% vs. 5% for the Liberals, 9% for the NDP, 7% for the Green Party) and those who would like to see government do less to reduce emissions (36% vs. 8% Liberals, 7% NDP, 15% Greens), according to a 2018 poll conducted by Abacus Data for the Ecofiscal Commission. By almost every measure, conservatives are far less likely to think climate change is human-caused or favour government intervention to combat global warming.

So, it comes as no surprise that the long-awaited CPC climate plan is more tepid than the declaration of war (Greens), the aggressive regulation and expenditures (NDP), and pragmatic compromise between fossil fuel development and support for clean energy (Liberals), plans adopted by the other federal parties. Scheer was never going to sound a clarion call for action.

In some ways, however, the CPC leader has captured the Canadian mood about climate policy better than the other parties.

For instance, Scheer calls the Liberal carbon tax “a revenue plan, not an environment plan,” and decries the “special deal” for large emitters (it’s a discount for industries, like oil and gas, that face competition from countries without climate policies). The federal carbon tax is “a failure of epic proportions. It makes virtually no contribution to the global fight against climate change and it only makes life more expensive for Canadian families and small businesses,” Scheer told reporters.

Ranking emissions reduction policies: Rules and regulations. Source: Abacus Data.

Canadians mostly agree. The Ecofiscal poll shows Canadians prefer regulations and subsidies over carbon pricing. For instance, 43 per cent of Conservatives ranked regulations as their first choice, which wasn’t that different from the other parties (Liberals 46%, NDP 54%, Greens 34%). Support for low-carbon technology subsidies as the second choice by about one-third of Conservative, Liberal, and NDP respondents, while the Greens clocked in at 26 per cent. Carbon pricing came in a distant third for all parties.

“This plan will be a more expensive way to reduce GHG emissions,” Ecofiscal economist Jason Dion said in an interview, noting that even Premier Jason Kenney of Alberta planned to maintain some form of output-based allocations (the discount) for large emitters.

Instead of carbon pricing, Scheer will make liberal use of subsidies. For instance, a two-year “green home tax credit”, to encourage Canadians to upgrade the energy efficiency of their homes.

The Conservatives will use regulations to reign in large polluters: “emissions standards” will be set by the federal government and, if they are exceeded, the emitter will be required to “to invest in technology that will give them the best shot at reducing their own emissions.” Scheer also claims that lowering the emissions threshold from the current 50 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per cent to 40 kilotonnes will impose the reductions on more facilities.

Ranking emissions reduction policies: Low-carbon technology subsidies. Source: Abacus Data.

Dion says the CPC plan is “a kind of carbon pricing,” but a much less efficient – and costly – way to lower emissions. While Scheer says exporting industries will receive better protection than output-based allocations provide, there isn’t enough detail to determine if that is likely to be the case.

One of the most contentious parts of the CPC climate plan would see a Scheer government try to persuade other countries that under article 6 of the Paris Agreement, Canada earn credits for doing something it was planning to do anyway, like exporting more natural gas (LNG) that will displace coal. “Whether emissions are reduced in Canada or in China, the scientific impact on global climate change is the exact same,” said Scheer.

The odds of this happening are slim to none, according to Dion.

“In the real world, it’s unlikely that such arrangements could be made for Canadian export deals,” he wrote in a recent article for Policy Options. The international system for counting emissions isn’t set up that way. Furthermore, the importing country is paying market prices for the LNG and has no incentive to give up the credits.

Ranking emissions reduction policies: Carbon pricing. Source: Abacus Data.

There are many more programs described in “A Real Plan,” – such as a Green Technology Innovation Fund – but the big pieces are replacing carbon pricing with regulations and subsidies, the home retrofitting program, and the (likely faint) hope that Canada can persuade the global community to give it credit for LNG exports.

“This is a plan only an oil lobbyist could love,” is how Greenpeace campaigner Keith Stewart described the CPC plan. “It checks all the key boxes on the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ (CAPP) wish list and if it ever became federal policy it would deepen the climate crisis.”

That’s a bit harsh, though Stewart is correct that “A Real Plan” does echo many of CAPP’s climate policy positions.

The biggest issue, though, is that the plan feels like the least Canada could do under the circumstances. The references to Canada being such a small contributor to greenhouse gas emissions at 1.6 per cent, for instance, sounds like Scheer wants Canada to return to its old habit of making climate commitments, then doing little to actually achieve them.

Unfortunately, if we believe the polling data, that may be exactly what Canadians want. And giving voters what they want is a time-honoured election strategy.

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