Trudeau victory could lead to stronger climate policies

Source: By Jean Chemnick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won a close election yesterday against a Conservative challenger who had promised to dismantle the nation’s policies on climate change.

The narrow victory came with a political cost. Trudeau’s Liberal Party lost its majority control of the Canadian Parliament, increasing its need to cooperate with smaller parties to the left that have criticized Trudeau for accommodating the fossil fuel industry.

“If we have a minority Liberal government, we could see a pretty significant acceleration in the pace of Canada’s action on climate change,” said Catherine Abreu, executive director of Climate Action Network Canada.

The election put climate change front and center. Polls showed that global warming was a top concern among voters during a campaign that featured personal attacks between Trudeau and his opponent, Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer.

“In an election that has otherwise been characterized by mudslinging and name-calling, climate is really the one policy issue that has penetrated the noise and really risen to the top of voters’ minds,” said Abreu.

The candidates spoke extensively about the effects of rising temperatures. Scheer affirms climate change as a human-caused problem that deserves a solution, but said throughout that innovation is the best way for Canada to meet its commitment under the Paris Agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.

The Conservative Party leader used his closing remarks this weekend to blast Trudeau again for introducing a federal carbon tax.

Trudeau, who met with Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg in late September, countered at a rally in Ontario Saturday that provincial leaders who oppose the levy are “fighting the future for our children.”

Trudeau’s government introduced the carbon tax in April in provinces that lack a comparable carbon price of their own. Ontario, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan all opposed the move, arguing in court that Canada’s Constitution bars the federal government from overriding provincial energy policies.

But appellate courts in Ontario and Saskatchewan have sided with Trudeau, and climate advocates expect the Supreme Court to affirm Ottawa’s authority to set tax policy.

Conservatives believed their opposition to the carbon tax was a winning issue, and advocates say Trudeau seemed initially to fear it could be a liability. The Liberal Party lost seats in 2008 in part because its former leader Stéphane Dion supported a similar policy.

But as summer began, Canada’s burgeoning youth climate strike movement was gaining traction at the same time that natural disasters dominated headlines. Severe floods and forest fires hit the country. Dan Woynillowicz, policy director of Clean Energy Canada, said Trudeau started to look more confident about his political decisions.

“For the Liberals, I think what we observed is that they pivoted from feeling as though they needed to play defense on climate change to actually seeing it as something that they had a positive track record that they could campaign on,” said Woynillowicz. “And in addition, they promised that they would do even more.”

Not everyone agrees that Trudeau had a good climate track record to run on.

While fending off attacks from Scheer on the right, the prime minister faced criticism from the parties to his left, including the New Democratic Party and the Green Party.

When Trudeau tried to tout the carbon tax or other aspects of the Liberal Party’s pan-Canadian climate agenda, progressive parties hammered him for failing to offer stronger commitments to the Paris Agreement, for the carbon tax’s modest $20-per-ton starting point, and especially for his decision to spend nearly $5 billion on a pipeline to carry Alberta oil to the Pacific coast for export.

Trudeau will now have to strengthen his alliance with them to govern effectively in Ottawa.

With races called for about two-thirds of Parliament’s 338 seats this morning, Liberals were projected to win 157 seats, while Scheer’s Conservative Party was on track to win 121. A total of 170 seats are needed for a governing majority.

Bloc Québécois, which won 32 seats last night and backs Quebec’s independence, supports a climate policy in line with the Paris Agreement’s strongest goal of containing warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels and backs a carbon tax.

Gerald Baier, an associate professor at the University of British Columbia, said the province at the terminus of the Trans Mountain pipeline views Trudeau as having “almost zero environmental credentials.”

“If you’re a quote-unquote serious environmental voter, and that’s the issue that’s going to motivate everything, you’re not going to be happy with the Liberals,” he said.

Surveys conducted this fall by the non-partisan Angus Reid Institute show that Trudeau’s evenhanded support for both climate action and the nation’s lucrative petroleum industry tracks with the views of most Canadian voters.

Shachi Kurl, its executive director, said the same respondents attach high importance to climate action and natural resource development.

“I think what we saw from our own findings in this series of research was that Canadians were looking not for an either-or scenario but for a both-and, and were actually to an extent open to two pathways,” Kurl said. “The problem for the Liberals is that while they are offering that middle way, it’s resulted politically in being beaten up on both sides.”

That’s compounded by the fact that Canada’s swing voters aren’t moderate, but young and progressive.

“At this stage in the game, it’s less about what the majority wants and more about what swing voters or the voters who will decide this election are looking for, and indeed, they’re the ones who are looking for climate purity,” she said.

Pressure from his left during the fall campaign spurred Trudeau to lay out an ambitious platform for a second mandate, including a promise that Canada would exceed its 2030 Paris commitment and set legally binding plans in five-year increments to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Now that Trudeau’s Liberal Party is set to govern with a minority in Parliament, that pressure is unlikely to go away. The New Democratic Party’s popular leader, Jagmeet Singh, spent the last five weeks lambasting Trudeau for supporting the pipeline, while Green Party Leader Elizabeth May promised to make a transition away from fossil fuels a condition of partnering with any party.

Advocates say they’ll use their newfound leverage to hold the Liberal Party accountable for its campaign promises.

“They definitely do play a role of, I wouldn’t say necessarily pushing the Liberals so much as pulling them along,” said Woynillowicz.