The debates are over and the protest songs have been sung. Now, Canadians are heading to the polls to vote in a federal election that could spell the end of Stephen Harper’s nine-year reign as prime minister. And that, environmentalists hope, could mean the end of the hostile environment towards climate science and environmental protection that some say Harper’s administration has created.
There are three major parties (along with a few smaller parties) in Monday’s election — the Conservative Party, which is headed by Prime Minister Harper; the Liberal Party, headed by Justin Trudeau, and the New Democratic Party (NDP) headed by Thomas Mulcair. Canadians will vote for their representative in the House of Commons, and the party with the most elected representatives will become the ruling party, with that party’s head as prime minister.
For almost a decade, that prime minister has been Harper, whose Conservative Party has won more seats than the other parties for the past three elections. But Harper hasn’t made many friends among environmentalists in Canada (or in the rest of the world). Harper, who in 2002 referred to the Kyoto Protocol as a “socialist scheme,” withdrew from the international climate treaty in 2011 — making Canada the first country to withdraw from Kyoto. In 2007, the Conservative government developed new rules on how Environment Canada scientists were to interact with the media, rules that ended up reducing these scientists’ interactions with the media on climate change by 80 percent (and helped inspire at least one anti-Harper song). Harper’s government has been a strong supporter of Alberta’s tar sands industry — earlier this year, the Guardian reported that the Conservative Party had secretly spent millions of dollars on tar sands public relations and advertising campaigns. Harper’s government has also pushed hard for the construction of Keystone XL and other tar sands pipelines.
CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Medichini
But Monday, Harper’s time as prime minister could come to an end. So far, the election is one of the closest ever in Canada, and polls don’t close until this evening. But right now the Liberal Party is leading by about 7 points over the Conservative Party.
So how would a victory for the Liberal Party change Canada’s tune on climate and environmental issues? Trudeau supports Keystone XL, but opposes the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would bring tar sands crude from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia. Since approval of the Keystone XL pipeline rests with President Obama, Trudeau’s opinion of the project doesn’t mean much in a practical sense, but it does show that he’s not opposed to building new tar sands pipelines as a rule. Trudeau also hasn’t taken a firm stance on the Energy East pipeline, which would carry tar sands crude from Alberta to Canada’s East Coast.
Trudeau has said that safety needs to be ensured when building new energy infrastructure.
“We know as an alternative to pipelines, we’ve seen oil by rail spike over the last few years with, in some cases, disastrous and even deadly consequences,” he said in September. “We need to ensure we are getting our resources to market in responsible, safe ways.”
Trudeau has criticized Harper’s environmental policy, hitting the prime minister for his environmental and economic decisions in a September debate.
“Mr. Harper continues to pretend that there is a choice between environment and economy. He chooses to say that you cannot build a strong economy if you’re protecting the environment — and that has been his failure,” Trudeau said. “He hasn’t gotten pipelines built. He has made the oil sands an international pariah.”
Trudeau’s plans for energy and the environment include inviting all of Canada’s premiers to attend the U.N. climate talks in Paris this year, and holding a first ministers’ meeting on climate change after the talks to develop a plan for emissions reductions. He also said he will act on a G20 pledge to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. He says he’ll ban oil tankers off of British Columbia’s North Coast, and invest $200 million every year on clean technology strategies. He’s also said that he’d create a national carbon pricing system if he becomes prime minister.
Mulcair’s NDP is trailing behind the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the polls, but he hasn’t given up hope of an NDP victory. Mulcair doesn’t support Keystone XL or the Northern Gateway pipeline, and he made that opposition clear in an August debate. He and Trudeau agree on their disdain for Harper’s environmental policies.
“Mr. Harper thought that by gutting our environmental laws, somehow he could get our energy resources to market better,” Mulcair said at the debate. “How’s that working out, Mr. Harper?”
“Canadians across the country want a clear, thorough, credible environmental assessment process,” he 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 has called for a more rigorous review process for pipelines. He promised in 2013 to “redirect a billion dollars a year in fossil fuel subsidies, and re-invest that money in clean energy,” and earlier this year, the NDP introduced a bill that would require Canada to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. He said in October that an NDP government would invest $200 million to make 50,000 homes and 15,000 apartments more energy efficient, and would invest $150 million into helping local governments transition into more sustainable forms of building and transit.
“After a decade of time wasted under Stephen Harper, we need a prime minister with the long-term vision to fight climate change,” he said.
That’s not just empty rhetoric: Harper’s inaction on climate change has had consequences for Canada. A report last year warned that the country wasn’t on track to meet its 2020 emissions reduction targets. The report, put together by Canada’s Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, found that, if federal action isn’t taken, the country’s greenhouse gas emissions output will remain nearly the same as it was in 2005. Canada announced its 2030 emissions reduction pledge earlier this year — a target of 30 percent reduction in emissions compared to 2005 levels that environmentalists said didn’t go far enough.
Canada’s environmental policy has lagged under Harper, but research has shown that Canada could be a leader in energy and environmental policy with strong federal action — which is part of the reason why Monday’s election is so high-stakes. A report published in March by 70 Canadian academics found that Canada had the potential to get 100 percent of its electricity from low-carbon sources by 2035 and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. The government could achieve these goals by putting a price on carbon and eliminating fossil fuel subsidies.
“Clearly the current Canadian federal government has absolutely no interest in pursuing these paths — that’s become painfully apparent,” Mark Winfield, associate professor of environmental studies at York University in Toronto, told ThinkProgress in March.
That could begin to change after Monday, however.