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UBC political science professor Kathryn Harrison breaks down the federal parties’ environmental policies - photo by Martin Dee
UBC political science professor Kathryn Harrison breaks down the federal parties’ environmental policies - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 10 | Oct. 2, 2008

Climate of Concern: Where Do the Political Parties Stand on the Environment?

By Kathryn Harrison
Professor, Dept. of Political Science

This fall’s federal election marks the first time that environmental issues have played a prominent role in a national election in Canada. How do the Conservative, Liberal, New Democratic, and Green parties compare on the central environmental issue of the campaign, climate change?

The parties’ positions are similar in several respects. All four party leaders acknowledge that climate change is real, and all four call for deep reductions in Canada’s emissions by mid-century. However, a more critical issue for voters is what targets the parties are offering in the near term, and whether their proposed policies can credibly achieve those goals.

On that point differences begin to emerge. The Liberals, NDP, and Green Party all have proposed ambitious reductions in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions below 1990 emissions by 2020, with the Liberals calling for a 20 per cent reduction, the NDP 25 per cent, and the Greens 30 per cent. The Conservative government’s target of a 20 per cent reduction by 2020 sounds similar, but that is relative to a 2006 baseline. Since Canada’s emissions increased significantly from 1990 to 2006, this amounts to just three per cent below 1990 emissions.

The parties also differ in the mix of policy tools they propose to achieve those targets. Public spending is politically easiest. Not surprisingly, all four parties have proposed billions of dollars in expenditures.

In a climate of public concern for the environment, it is also fairly easy to regulate -- as long as the regulations affect someone else. All four parties have proposed to control large industrial sources through a “cap and trade” system. Cap and trade builds on the traditional approach of limiting individual factories’ emissions, but then authorizes polluters to achieve their emissions “caps” at lower cost by trading permits among themselves.

The parties differ most dramatically in their willingness to employ taxation. The lightening rod for environmental debate during the campaign clearly is the Liberal Party’s proposal for a revenue-neutral carbon tax.

The Liberal plan has two parts. The first, the carbon tax, would start at $10 per tonne of carbon dioxide produced, increasing to $40 per tonne over four years. Gasoline would be exempt for all four years on the grounds that the federal excise tax on gasoline is already equivalent to $40 per tonne. The logic behind a carbon tax is that if fuels are taxed based on their relative contribution to climate change, consumers and businesses will respond to that price signal by finding ways to conserve energy and shift to cleaner fuels.

The second part of the “Green Shift” is a commitment that a Liberal government would give back as much money through tax deductions as they collect from the new carbon tax, with special attention to low income, rural, and Northern Canadians, and to vulnerable business sectors.

Two key strengths of the Liberal proposal are that it would provide incentives for emissions reductions immediately, and that it would apply across virtually the entire economy. In contrast, cap and trade proposals apply only to large industrial sources, which account for just half of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The Conservative Party has been highly critical of the Liberal proposal, emphasizing the costs of the tax to Canadian families and questioning whether the promised tax cuts will ever materialize. While the Conservatives have yet to release a detailed election platform, their government’s Turning the Corner plan proposes to substitute more realistic and balanced targets in place of the unattainable goal of compliance with Canada’s targets under the Kyoto Protocol.

The centerpiece of the Turning the Corner plan is a cap and trade program for large industrial sources, though premised on potentially misleading “emissions intensity” targets rather than absolute emissions caps. The plan relies heavily on underground storage of carbon dioxide, a technology as yet unproven on such a large scale.

The New Democratic Party’s “Green Agenda” proposes to make “big polluters pay their share.” Their proposed cap and trade program would entail both absolute emissions caps and significantly deeper cuts than the Conservatives’ plan. However, the federal NDP, like their provincial counterparts in B.C., have rejected the idea of a carbon tax. The NDP proposals to a large degree substitute public spending, in the form of subsidies for both individuals and business, for carbon taxation. The risk with subsidies, however, is that taxpayers will end up compensating many individuals or firms for actions they would have taken anyway.

The Green Party has offered a climate change plan that is both detailed and ambitious. Like the Liberals, the Greens propose a revenue-neutral carbon tax, but set at $50 per tonne initially and increasing to $100 per tonne by 2020. The Green Party’s plan also proposes targets for industry under a cap and trade program comparable to those of the NDP.

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Last reviewed 01-Oct-2008

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