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Conservative dismissal of clean economy future puts climate change and jobs at risk

Every party’s platform slogan speaks to the future they want you to believe only they can bring you. Liberals say, “Forward. For Everyone”. The NDP are “Ready for Better”. The Greens call on us to “Be Daring”.  Conservatives want to “Secure the Future”. Putting slogans aside, most of us are now deeply aware that securing our future is critically tied to the actions we take to reduce climate change over the next ten years.  At the crux of it lies the fate of the oil and gas sector, and the Conservatives remain in dangerous denial of that fact.

Just this past May one of the world’s biggest boosters of the oil and gas sector, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a special report saying that there must be “no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects”, among other energy use changes, if the world is to have a narrow chance at achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

The Liberals, who started the campaign with a series of weak justifications for buying a pipeline no one else wanted, are now floating the idea of a hard cap on oil and gas sector emissions.  If they are returned to government, they promise to set targets for oil and gas emissions every five years starting in 2025 with an end goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2050.  

On the surface, it seems like a long-delayed recognition that we cannot have our cake and eat it too: We cannot continue to expand tar sands output and meet our international climate commitments.  As the country with the highest  emissions  increase among the G7  since the signing of the Paris climate accord, this recognition is vital.  But the devil is in the details, especially if the Liberals will agree to the fossil industry’s demands for tens of billions of tax dollars of support for unproven carbon capture technologies that extend the life of fossil fuel projects rather than reduce emissions. Budget 2021 already set aside $319 million for carbon capture research that could be better invested in proven,  job rich initiatives to retrofit buildings, build a clean energy grid, or electrify transport.

The Conservatives have taken a step forward as well by finally embracing the need for carbon pricing. Their actual plan, however, is unlikely to get Canada to its Paris goals. But Erin O’Toole has a solution for that: Just reduce the targets!  At a point where every credible scientific body is telling us we need more ambition on climate, not less, this is a bad idea.  Instead of the 40-45% reduction (from 2005 levels) the Canadian government has officially committed to, the Conservatives would shoot for 30% with the justification that Canada can’t afford to lose oil and gas jobs. In fact, the Conservative platform studiously avoids any substantive conversation of a transition to the clean economy, doubling down instead (to the tune of $5 billion) on developing carbon capture technologies.

The problem with this idea is that Canada is already losing oil and gas jobs even as fossil fuel production increases.  A Clean Energy Canada study found that the number of jobs in fossil fuels are poised to drop another nine per cent by 2030. On the other hand, the same study projected that clean economy jobs will double over the same period.  So there are lots of reasons to believe that lowering our climate ambition will do little to help workers grappling with a hollowing out fossil fuel sector. As well, with our biggest trading partner south of the border planning to build their way to a jobs rich, clean economy, we’re not doing ourselves any favours delaying climate action. In fact we risk missing the boat if we elect a government that is happy just to tread water.

The NDP sees the writing on the wall and has declared that they will end subsidies for fossil fuels. (The Liberals committed to do this back in 2016 but fossil fuel subsidies have increased since then.) The NDP sees the potential to create one million jobs through investments in renewable energy and increasing community climate resilience while going further than Canada’s official 45% reduction target. A keystone of the NDP plan is to put people to work retrofitting all buildings in Canada by 2050, a program that would allow the much needed scaling up of effective energy efficiency programs that have suffered from piecemeal implementation for decades.

The Greens have easily the most ambitious emissions reduction target, calling for a 60% reduction, largely relying on greater increases in the carbon tax and aggressive actions to wind down Canada’s fossil fuel industries.Though light on detail, the Greens are also promising a Just Transitions Act that acknowledges that workers in the carbon heavy economy need a path to new work.

The Liberals and the NDP also acknowledge the transition that is ahead for fossil fuel sector workers, with significant plans for retraining and, in the NDP’s case, enhanced EI benefits, among other measures. 

The Conservative belief that we can squeeze every last drop of economic gain from a fading fossil fuel sector by delaying deep action on climate is a Faustian bargain if ever there was one.  It ignores the huge costs of runaway climate change – costs that Canadian communities are already grappling with thanks to raging wildfires, flooding and drought. And it ignores how acting boldly on climate change can grow our economy, create new opportunities for workers, and make our communities healthier.  Exactly the kind of “win-win” solution politicians love to talk about, and what we actually need to “Secure the Future”.

Katrina Miller is the Program Director for the Broadbent Institute.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is the Program Manager for Blue Green Canada.