Last Thursday night there were actually three debates held for candidates seeking to lead large North American nations, not two.
The main event, the primetime Republican primary debate which had 24 million viewers, featured zero questions about energy or the environment, no mentions of climate change, and barely a mention of energy for two solid hours. The smaller so-called “kids table” debate featured one question, directed at Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), framed to find out how Republicans could ever trust him based on his record of working, for a time, with Senate Democrats on 2010’s failed cap-and-trade bill.
But there was a third debate, held less than 300 miles to the northeast, wherein candidates were asked almost a dozen questions about energy and the environment. They expressed a variety of viewpoints about energy production and climate mitigation, while never doubting mainstream climate science.
Yes, Canada, America’s friendly neighbor to the north, will soon be deciding whether to give current Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper another term. He has been in power since 2006, and some prognosticators think there is more of a chance than in past elections that he could lose. Maclean’s magazine hosted the first of potentially six federal debates Thursday night in Toronto.
Harper squared off against Green Party leader Elizabeth May, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Tom Mulcair in advance of the country’s federal election in October, which will decide which party controls Canada. For much of the debate, Harper’s rivals attacked him for steering his country into recession for a second time.
Harper admitted that his country may be headed into a small recession, though he argued it was largely limited to the energy sector.
The debate (complete transcription here) then moved into an entire section devoted to the environment. Here are three main issues they covered in detail:
CREDIT: Macleans debate screenshot
Keystone XL and tar sands oil
If the Keystone XL pipeline is a big political issue in the United States, it is even more so in Canada. Paul Wells, the political editor of Maclean’s magazine, moderated the debate and first asked Harper why energy exports had stalled. Harper said they had not, and when asked about the Keystone XL pipeline, he said he was “very confident, looking at the field, that whoever is the next President I think will approve that project very soon in their mandate.” Harper and Liberal Party leader Trudeau support the pipeline, while the other two candidates oppose it.
Wells asked Harper if Obama would have approved Keystone had been a price on carbon in Canada four years ago. “Absolutely not,” Harper replied. “The President has never said that to me. On the contrary, the President’s said that he will — he’s told me what factors will influence his decision. It will be his own evaluation of the United States’ best interests.” He noted that the United States had no limits on its greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas sector.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau attacked Harper for not exporting oil fast enough.
“Mr. Harper continues to say oh, we can’t do anything on the environment because we’ll hurt the economy,” Trudeau said. “And not only has he not helped our environment, but he’s actually slowed our economy.” Trudeau explained that Harper can’t get exports to market, including tar sands oil, “because there is no public trust anymore.” Harper, Trudeau said, needs to convince communities and work with First Nations to keep developing natural resources.
Trudeau said that oil sands would be “an important part of our economy for a number of years to come,” but that Harper had turned them “into the scapegoat around the world for climate change.”
The other two candidates based their opposition to Keystone XL on an argument for more Canadian jobs.
“Mr. Harper and Mr. Trudeau both agree with Keystone XL, which represents the export of 40,000 jobs,” said NDP leader Tom Mulcair. “I want to create those 40,000 jobs here in Canada.” He evinced a more process-oriented, critical view of other oil and gas export projects.
“The Green Party opposes every single one of the pipelines that are proposed,” Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said. “Every single one of these raw bitumen, unprocessed oil pipeline schemes is about exporting Canadian jobs.”
International climate commitments
Wells asked Harper if Canada would meet its target he had set in Copenhagen: reduce emissions 17 percent by 2020, compared to 2005 levels. A Canadian government watchdog warned late last year that without new policies, it would fail to do so.
“I believe we will, but we now are focusing on a 2030 target,” Harper replied. “That’s what every country is doing. We’ve set a target in concert with our international partners, 30 percent over 20 – of 2005 levels by 2030.”
This is actually weaker than the U.S. target: pledging to drop emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. Harper skipped an important U.N. Climate Summit in New York City last year that U.S. President Barack Obama attended.
Green Party leader May made the case that Harper’s climate record was “litany of broken promises”:
…You committed in 2008 not to export unprocessed oil, bitumen, to countries that have weaker emissions standards than Canada. That would obviously include China, the destination point for Enbridge and Kinder Morgan, which only the Green Party on this stage opposes. It makes no sense to export unprocessed oil to countries with poor environmental records.
You also committed to bring in a North America-wide cap-and-trade program working with partners. … And you also personally went to Copenhagen. It wasn’t a previous promise from Jean Chretien; you were in Copenhagen and committed to what was, I hate to say, a very weak target. But we are not going to come anywhere near it by 2020. And there’s just no credibility at this point. Canada needs to take action.
We’re having a summer of extreme drought, raging wildfires, and really severe weather through all of our seasons. Canadians want action. Canada needs to take action so that we can defend ourselves from the changing global climate and from the impacts economically here at home.
It’s unclear whether May will be permitted to participate in future federal election debates, due to minimal Green Party representation in Parliament despite respectable-yet-small showings in nationwide election results.
The debate moved on to regulating the oil and gas sector. Harper said he wanted to work with the United States and Mexico to integrate the sector in North America, but hadn’t found willing partners.
Trudeau said Obama was actually ready for an energy partnership when the president took office, but nothing had happened since then.
“When Obama just announced recently landmark legislation moving forward on climate change action, Canada is nowhere to be found,” Trudeau continued. “That’s why the Liberal Party is proposing that we work again on a continental model, work with the United States and Mexico to address both energy and the environment in a comprehensive way.”
Cutting Canadian carbon emissions
Political debates about cleaning up carbon pollution sound different in Canada than the United States. A lot of it gets focused on particular infrastructure projects, and the whole emphasis is just different.
“Mr. Harper thought that by gutting our environmental laws, somehow he could get our energy resources to market better,” said NDP leader Tom Mulcair. “How’s that working out, Mr. Harper?
“Canadians across the country want a clear, thorough, credible environmental assessment process,” Mulcair continued. “Canada can be a leader around the world. We can play a positive role. But with Mr. Harper, we’ve got the worst of all worlds.”
Mulcair argued that Harper had gotten the balance between resource extraction and the environment wrong. “He’s gutted our environmental legislation, and he knows that that’s hurting jobs in our resource sector, it’s hurting our economy, and frankly, it’s hurting Canada’s international reputation,” Mulcair said. He argued he would, as Prime Minister, “make polluters pay for the pollution they create.”
Harper tried to take credit for cutting coal use in Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia. Trudeau refuted him, pointing out that “it was the Ontario government that worked very hard to do that, and you were blocking them at every turn.”
The Prime Minister said that his was “the first government in history to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while also growing our economy.” Trudeau bit back that “nobody believes [him].” Emissions went down due to the global financial crisis slowing economies in general around the world. And May pointed out that emissions would have been a lot higher nationwide if Ontario had not shut down its coal plants and British Columbia hadn’t put a carbon tax in place.
Harper said later on that “a carbon tax is not about reducing emissions. It’s a front. It is about getting revenue for governments that cannot control their spending.”
Compared with a U.S. political debate about energy, the Canadian debate contained surprisingly few mentions of renewable energy. Trudeau and Mulcair listed clean tech or green tech investment as priorities, but otherwise renewable energy was absent from the debate — wind and solar never came up. This is partially due to the fact that 60 percent of Canada’s electricity comes from hydro power. With nuclear and renewable energy, close to 80 percent of Canada’s electricity generation does not emit greenhouse gases.