Special Report: Climate Change

Erin O'Toole's Climate Policy is Insincere and Unserious

Grown-ups know that combatting climate change will cost money. One way or another, we all must pay. Either we pay for combatting climate change, or we will pay much more dearly with lives and money as unmitigated climate change worsens year after year.

By John Loukidelis
Published September 08, 2020

Erin O'Toole was recently elected as the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC). Given the Liberal minority government's troubles, especially its ethical woes and its issues with unity, O'Toole might yet end up as the Prime Minister of Canada. O'Toole's climate change platform, which is set out using admirably clean design on his website, therefore deserves some attention.

Readers of Raise the Hammer might ask why bother. The CPC does not appear to care much about climate change. Reviewing O'Toole's platform in some detail, however, serves as a useful reminder of what is not good climate policy. Considering the reasons for its deficiencies also highlights why the CPC is "climate insincere".

O'Toole on Climate Policy

The analysis below proceeds by quoting O'Toole's policy verbatim and then inserting questions and comments.

O'Toole's platform on climate begins with a statement of principles. The introduction to the statement (the very first sentence appearing on the climate change webpage) is as follows:

A carbon tax is not an Environmental Plan, it is a Tax Plan.

This isn't a good start.

This point has been made many times before: calling the federal carbon charge a "tax plan" is fundamentally dishonest. It is intended to leave the impression that the tax is a primarily a revenue-raising tool. In fact, 90 percent of the revenues raised by the charge are returned to the provinces from which they are collected and either given to the provinces' governments or returned to taxpayers via the "Climate Action Incentive".

A Parliamentary Budget Office study concluded that the average household would receive back more from the incentive than the total carbon charges it had paid.

Here's another point that has been made many times before: a carbon charge is the free market solution for addressing an "externality" like greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It's an important reason why some socialists oppose carbon taxes.

For a trove of evidence-based discussion about the virtues of carbon pricing from an economic and environmental perspective, go to Canada's Ecofiscal Commission website, which is supported by, among others, those bearded, bespectacled pipe-smoking radicals at TD Canada Trust. Conservatives enamoured of the miracle of the free market should be scrambling to embrace a carbon price as the best way to reduce emissions in the most efficient and effective way possible.

Instead, abhorrence of a carbon tax, which one Conservative insider recently called "morally repugnant", has become CPC dogma. A carbon tax is the single best tool we have for addressing climate change, but the CPC insists it is something we cannot discuss because, you know, "morality".

This kind of fundamentalism about a powerful tool that conservatives should love on ideological grounds is the first and best piece of evidence that the CPC is not addressing climate change in good faith.

O'Toole's statement of principles continues:

We need a smarter approach, one which recognizes that:

1. Climate Change is a global problem, that requires a global solution;

O'Toole seems to admit that climate change is a problem, anyway, unlike a significant part of his base (on which more below). The statement doesn't specify how serious the problem is though. Maybe O'Toole thinks it is a civilization-ending problem. Maybe he thinks it will cost lives and a lot of money. Maybe he thinks climate change will end up costing only a relatively small amount of money far in the future and we have other, more important concerns (like Bjorn Lomborg).

From the absence of any targets for emissions in O'Toole's platform, the latter seems to be the scenario he favours. If that's right, then he's out of touch with the science (like Lomborg himself).

In any event, climate change is a global problem. It is undoubtedly true that, if Canada abides by the Paris accord, and the United States and China do not, then climate change will continue to get worse. Canadian emissions cuts by themselves will achieve very little for the global biosphere.

Chinese cuts alone won't help much either. If China were to act alone and cut its emissions by 50 percent by 2030 (an almost impossible task), then global emissions would fall by only 13 percent. Of course we need a global solution.

The Paris accord is meant to be a global solution. It's telling that, given the O'Toole platform's emphasis on the global character of the crisis, the platform never mentions the Paris accord. It also never mentions the targets for emissions reductions that Canada agreed to make by signing the accord.

Does O'Toole support the Paris accord, or will he withdraw Canada from it, as Harper did with Kyoto? Is O'Toole committed to ensuring that Canada meets its commitments under the accord? If the Paris accord cuts aren't the right ones, then what are?

The science says that we need to be at net zero emissions by 2050 to be safe. Is O'Toole committed to that goal? The platform doesn't say. It doesn't mention any emissions cuts or goals. Somebody should ask him these questions.

A cynic will think that this "climate change is a global problem" stuff really serves another purpose: it's about providing cover for a CPC government to do nothing or very little about Canada's emissions. Canada will persist with the "No, you first" approach while continuing as a top-ten global emitter. Given the rest of the content of O'Toole's platform, the cynicism appears to be justified.

2. The world will still be using oil and natural gas for a long time.

This might be true, if it is a prediction about future demand based on past behaviour. The question, however, is whether we ought still to be using oil and gas "for a long time". To prevent a climate disaster, we have a carbon budget. The point of the Paris accord and emissions targets is to ensure that we stay within or somewhere near the budget.

If one of your climate principles entails using oil and gas "for a long time", the budget be damned, then it's your platform that is morally repugnant, not the federal carbon charge.

The question is whether they [oil and gas] will come from free countries like Canada with strong environmental protections, or dictatorships with no environmental protections or respect for human rights;

Ah, "ethical oil" - that desperate Kenney government attempt to change the conversation as oil majors, banks and insurers re-think the ethics and economics of exploiting the oil sands while the world burns.

It's unclear who is asking the question O'Toole has posed. It seems unlikely that foreign consumers will pay Canada a premium for "ethical oil" or otherwise care about its ethical quality. US consumers, in particular, seem quite willing to brush aside ethical concerns about the source of their fossil fuels. The US has fought wars and befriended dictatorships to keep cheap oil flowing.

Those who do care about the ethics of oil might also care deeply about the "environmental protections" to which the platform refers. Those ethical consumers will be skeptical of the protections Canada supposedly upholds if they are accompanied by large and growing GHG emissions from the oil sands. For all the Harper government rhetoric around climate change and improvements to the oil sands' footprint (on a per barrel basis of course), nobody thought Canada was a leader in environmental protections.

It's unlikely "ethical" consumers would be fooled by talk about "environmental protections", if Canada pulls out of the Paris accord or it refuses to take its obligations under the agreement seriously. Ethical consumers might also think that the alternative to burning oil sold by authoritarian countries is not to burn it at all.

Maybe, however, O'Toole thinks that Canadians should be asking about the ethics of the oil they burn. Perhaps he thinks Canadians should be willing to pay more for Alberta's ethical (but high cost) oil. Which thought leads to this:

3. Domestic energy production - including oil and gas - is an important part of making our country more self-reliant and more resilient in future, as we cannot afford to become reliant on energy from countries like Russia;

Not only is it about ethics, it's about self-reliance, resilience and not being beholden to those Russians. (Nobody will accuse Erin O'Toole of being beholden to Vladimir Putin.)

It's interesting that O'Toole's platform mentions Russia. According to data from Natural Resources Canada, in 2017, 65 percent of our oil imports came from the US, 18 percent from Saudi Arabia, 5 percent from Azerbaijan, 3 percent from Norway and 2 percent from Nigeria. Russia wasn't on that list.

As for natural gas, in 2017, 98 percent of Canada's imported natural gas came from the US. Why is O'Toole mentioning Russia? Why isn't Saudi Arabia mentioned? Maybe more importantly, why are we worrying about self-reliance, resilience and ethics when so much of our imported oil and gas comes from the US?

4. Pitting one part of the country against another, as Trudeau has done, is a cheap way to score political points and does not do anything for the planet;

Ignore the fact that the federal government under Mr. Trudeau bought a pipeline to placate Alberta. How does O'Toole propose to unite Canada on climate change? If his climate policy is beholden to Alberta and Saskatchewan (on which more below), and his government takes no effective action on climate, are Canadians in the rest of the country supposed to thank him for it anyway because of the "unity" we'll enjoy?

Or do Canadians who care about climate change also get to complain about O'Toole pitting one part of the country against another?

5. Canada is a world leader in zero-emissions technologies like nuclear and hydro and in innovations like making low-emission jet fuel out of carbon waste; and

Actually, our nuclear industry hasn't been doing all that well lately, which is probably why the Harper government unloaded the CANDU technology in 2011.

No doubt Canada could be a leader in low-emissions technology, and the country could reap great economic benefits from developing and deploying such technologies. It's not clear what that has to do with lowering Canada's emissions.

6. The environment is an area of shared jurisdiction, and the federal government should not be trampling on the provinces and territories.

I will respect the jurisdiction of the provinces and territories by scrapping Trudeau's carbon tax.

Under our Constitution, the courts decide questions like whether the carbon tax "tramples" on provincial jurisdiction. So far, the courts haven't found the federal government guilty of any trampling (except in Alberta of course). Ultimately, the Supreme Court will decide the matter, probably some time early next year.

Until then, all this talk about "trampling" is just hot air.

As an aside, let me admit something that a lawyer probably should not confess: I could care less about the Canadian constitution and its division of powers if the price we must pay for it is the health and well-being of future generations.

If provinces want to use market mechanisms, other forms of carbon pricing, or regulatory measures, that is up to them. The federal government will be there to support them.

In the absence of any commitment on O'Toole's part to national emissions targets, the corollary of this principle seems to be that, if the provinces decide to do nothing about emissions, the federal government will support that too. For example, if Alberta, with about 11 percent of Canada's population, wants to continue to emit about 37 percent of its GHGs, it seems it will be free to do so, and the rest of Canada can go suck an egg.

As Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, I will build a climate policy that meets the following criteria:

  • Founded on proven market-based principles for incenting positive economic change;

The first O'Toole criterion for a climate policy is about "positive economic change", not climate change.

And the policy will use "proven market-based principles" - but not a proven market-based principle like carbon pricing, of course.

  • Focuses on making industry pay rather than taxing ordinary Canadians,

Here's the lie about "taxing ordinary Canadians" again.

And, of course, industry will never pass the costs they pay on to ordinary Canadians.

This just isn't serious. Grown-ups know that combatting climate change will cost money. One way or another, we all must pay. Either we will pay for combatting climate change, or we will pay much more dearly with lives and money as unmitigated climate change worsens year after year.

Economists overwhelmingly prefer carbon pricing because it reduces emissions the most for the least amount of money. Other mechanisms, like regulations and industry-focused pricing, can work too, but they will end up costing "ordinary Canadians" more.

Conservatives have always claimed they were the grown-ups in the room. They, uniquely among adherents of modern ideologies, live in the "real world". They know about the hard realities. They know about trade-offs. They know about "math". They know about unintended consequences. There is no free lunch. The piper must be paid. The world is what it is, not what we want it to be.

But here we have Erin O'Toole telling us that he will make industry pay for fighting climate change so that ordinary Canadian won't have to.

  • by forging a national industrial regulatory and pricing regime across the country;

Now we're talking about regulations? I thought Conservatives hated those.

And how do we get back to "pricing" when carbon pricing is anathema? Or is he talking about some kind of "pricing regime" for carbon that isn't a carbon tax like the one we're supposed to hate so much?

And how will this be a national "regime", if the federal government isn't supposed to go a-trampling? Will this "regime" be the strictly voluntary kind that provinces are free to ignore if they wish?

  • Avoids focus on carbon only, and instead is scoped to capture ALL greenhouse gases, many of which are more powerful than carbon dioxide;

Who's focusing on "carbon only"?

One supposes that "carbon" is meant to refer to CO2. Of course, other GHGs are more powerful agents of warming on a per unit basis. The most important culprit other than CO2 is methane. Does this mean that O'Toole is prepared to cut methane emissions in a serious way? If he thinks that will endear him to the oil and gas industry and his rural supporters, then he needs to learn more about fugitive emissions (especially those from the oil and gas industry) and methane emissions from agriculture.

  • Simplifies the tax code to create confidence in the resource sector and support its actions toward emission reduction;

Ha ha ha ha!

I have been practicing tax law for more than 25 years. We tax professionals used to say to each other, "This is all kind of complicated. Nobody understands this except us drones. Shouldn't somebody do something about that?" But every such utterance was an incantation at which ministers of finance, Liberal and Conservative, appeared with a bang in a puff of smoke, cackling, and dropped another 300 pages of draft legislation on our toes to amend the Income Tax Act (Canada) (aka "the tax code").

In the meantime, I would love to see the model showing that "simplifying the tax code" will reduce emissions by a single kilogram.

  • Proactively invests in mitigation programs and critical infrastructure to protect communities threatened by Climate Change on an on-going basis, such as floodplains along the Ottawa River, St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario basin;

O'Toole's plan is full of buzzwords like "proactively", "incenting" (yuck), "scoped" and "market-based principles". It's short on coherence and concrete goals and policies.

Anyway, O'Toole now seems to be mixing up "mitigation" - efforts to reduce GHG emissions to slow down or halt climate change - and "adaptation" - building systems and infrastructure that protect people and property from its effects.

Adaptation will be a necessary and important task over the next century. If it is undertaken instead of cutting emissions, however, it will end up costing lives and a lot more money.

  • Considers how to support regions of Canada most affected by the short-term impacts of climate (floods, fires, Lyme Disease) as well as long-term economic impacts;

Considering stuff is good as long as it is coupled with actually doing something about that stuff.

  • Shows the world that we are willing to do our part, while also putting pressure on China, the US and Russia to step up and do better.

How will we show that? Will we do it by living up to our commitments under the Paris accord? The platform doesn't say.

Under my leadership, Canada will contribute meaningfully to lowering global GHG emissions.

This is the platform's only reference to emissions reductions. What does "meaningfully" mean? Why refer only to global emissions?

O'Toole wants to be the Prime Minister of Canada. The levers of power he will manipulate, if elected, will work best to reduce Canada's emissions. Why talk about global emissions and say nothing about Canada's? Is it, again, a cover for not doing anything about Canada's emissions until China accedes to our demands (delivered, no doubt, in a very stern voice) that they bring theirs down first?

The platform's use of "meaningfully" is also significant. Why use an adverb and not some hard numbers from the Paris accord to quantify the platform's commitments? Why not incorporate our best scientific understanding of climate change and the emissions cuts required to avoid the worst of it? (References to the IPCC are also conspicuous by their absence in O'Toole's platform.)

Priorities will include:

  • Exporting modern and safe nuclear technology: We will never generate enough electricity for the world's burgeoning demand for power using renewables like windmills and solar panels alone, especially as we increasingly convert fossil fuel demand into electricity demand. Canada is a world leader in safe nuclear technology and should continue that leadership role, including with Small Modular Reactors ('SMRs') that could assist in emission reduction in remote areas using Canadian technology that could be shared with and sold to the world.

I'm pro-nuke. (Sorry, anti-nuke friends.) I believe that existing and advanced reactors will be necessary and important for our energy portfolio for the forseeable future.

But advanced reactor designs of the kind to which O'Toole refers are years, if not decades, away from being capable of deployment at scale. We don't have the time to wait for miracle technologies to save us. We need to start making deep cuts now.

Moreover, if Canadian "SMRs" will be so great, why does the platform emphasize exporting them? If we want to sell them to foreigners, we should be deploying them at scale in Canada first, to prove to the world it can be done safely and in a cost-effective manner.

  • Helping the world stop burning coal by transitioning to natural gas: Hundreds of coal-burning power plants are nearing decommission but hundreds more are on the drawing board, with 300 planned in China alone. Even Germany is planning to build more coal plants. We need to stop building new coal-fired power plants and accept that natural gas is the most realistic interim step that cuts emissions in half. Under Stephen Harper, Canada showed leadership in creating a plan to phase out coal-fired power. Canada can be a reliable source of natural gas to help the world get off coal, generating massive emissions reductions.

Coal is bad, but natural gas might be worse than coal, according to some estimates. Peter Kalmus, in Being the Change (2017), p 154, argues that natural gas is worse than coal when fugitive emissions are taken into account. Even if natural gas could be a climate-friendly bridge, it needs to be a short one. Investing billions for new infrastructure for that purpose is short-sighted when we need to be a net zero emissions in just 30 years.

  • Tapping the ingenuity of our scientists and researchers to develop technology that will help the world: We will increase research and development funding and provide incentives - such as accelerated capital cost allowance - to continue Canadian leadership in Carbon Capture and Storage technology and to encourage commercialization of GHG reduction technologies

We absolutely need better technology to address the climate change crisis, and effective and economic carbon capture technology would be a game changer. But "technology" by itself as a solution to climate change, although beloved of North American conservatives, is magical thinking.

  • Working with industry on a plan to get to net zero emissions in the oil and gas industry through the use of technologies like electrification generated from sources such as nuclear and wind and carbon capture, with the government providing incentives similar to those that were used to stimulate the early development of the oilsands.

Conservatives are supposed to hate government subsidies, but they appear to be politically correct when served up to oil and gas.

Anyway, when is industry supposed to achieve net zero emissions? If it's by 2030, then O'Toole will be aiming at a worthwhile goal. If it's by 2100, then that will be too late by 50 years. O'Toole's plan, of course, doesn't make any promises about timing.

Reducing oil sands production emissions to "net zero" also seems highly unlikely. According to one study, the emissions intensity of the oil sands declined 20 percent between 2009 and 2018, which is quite an accomplishment.

Meanwhile, however, total emissions from the oil and gas sector in Canada went from 157.9 Mt in 2009 to 193.2 Mt in 2018, a 22 percent increase. Canada won't earn climate change merit points for increasing GHG emissions more efficiently.

Finally, it seems unlikely that the industry can achieve net zero emissions without further increasing the relative cost of oilsands oil. Imagine the economics of producing from the oil sands with electricity derived from renewables and specially-designed nuclear reactors.

  • Building climate resilience into our infrastructure, so we can protect against extreme weather events. This includes investing in infrastructure such as floodwalls and resilient power grids to make Canada more resistant to floods, fires and similar natural disasters.

We're back to adaptation now.

Promoting Canada as an ESG Global Energy Thought Leader: As more capital pools are reviewing investments using Environmental Social Governance (ESG) models, Canada needs to become a thought-leader and global brand given our unparalleled commitment to ethical business practices, environmental regulation, Indigenous engagement, rule of law, and transparency. We will leverage our relations in the G7, G20 and Commonwealth to ensure that this ESG movement holds other resource producers to the standards Canada already promotes.

This is all very interesting, but what does it mean for cuts to Canada's emissions? Does it mean that Canada shouldn't be required to make cuts as long as other resource producers don't meet the standards we "promote"? Are we just promoting standards, or will we abide by them too?

Good luck building that "brand", by the way, especially under CPC leadership, given Stephen Harper's history with global negotiations and agreements on climate change.

Climate Insincerity

Mark Jaccard, in his book The Citizen's Guide to Climate Success (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2020), lays out a helpful algorithm voters can use to assess a politician's promises about climate. (See page 275 of the pdf version of the book, which is available for download for free.) The algorithm asks the following questions:

Personally, I find the first question of limited value. I find it hard to judge any politician's sincerity about any issue in the abstract. I prefer to judge a politician based on past action and current promises.

O'Toole does not have much of a record on climate matters. He was a backbencher and then a cabinet minister under Harper for a relatively short period of time. It's possible that he held the Harper line on climate out of loyalty and that his own views differed. I prefer, then, to judge his sincerity based on his current promises as set out in his platform.

O'Toole's platform shows he is not climate sincere. The platform's preference for buzzwords and adverbs, the relentless focus on what is peripheral and ineffective and, above all else, its total silence on emissions targets tell the true story: an O'Toole government would effectively resume the policies of the Harper years, which Jaccard calls a "lost decade" in Canadian climate policy. (Not that the decade before Harper was anything to boast about either, as Jaccard himself helped to point out in 2007.)

O'Toole's platform mentions pricing (but never a carbon tax!), and it mentions regulations of an unspecified nature. Without a commitment to targets, and with no link between pricing and regulations, on the one hand, and targets on the other, all such discussion is just empty verbiage. Pricing and regulations accomplish nothing if they aren't designed to reduce emissions by the necessary amount.

O'Toole's lack of sincerity on climate change continues a Conservative tradition. Stephen Harper, who was a great economist, we were told, and a champion of free enterprise and free markets, so we were assured, cynically turned the carbon tax, the market solution for reducing GHG emissions, into a stick he could use to help beat the Liberals in the 2008 election.

Rather than do anything to combat climate change, Harper's government pursued policies that made Canada's emissions profile worse. Harper aimed to shift the political and economic centre of the country to Alberta, and to do that he promoted Canada as a global energy "superpower". That meant boosting the oil sands, even at the expense of other parts of the Canadian economy (never mind the climate). (For a more detailed discussion of these points, see Jeff Rubin, The Carbon Bubble (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2015.)

Although O'Toole is from Ontario, his climate platform appears to be Stephen Harper policy by other means.

The Skeptical Base

The Conservative approach is not hard to understand if one examines the makeup of the CPC coalition. A significant part of that coalition simply doesn't believe climate change is happening. Another part agrees it is happening, but they believe it isn't caused by humans.

According to an Angus Reid survey done in 2018, only 35 percent of CPC voters (compared to 66 percent of Canadians generally) agreed that climate change is happening and that it is human-caused. Another 35 percent (compared to 19 percent of Canadians generally) believed it is happening but that it has natural causes. Fully 21 percent of CPC voters (but only 9 percent of Canadians generally) believed that climate change is just a "theory" that hasn't been proven yet.

Only about one-third of CPC voters start from premises that would support any kind of action on emissions. It's unclear, however, what portion of that third thinks climate change warrants taking dramatic action. One-third of CPC voters might believe in man-made climate change, but they might also believe that the changes happening are no big deal. (A conservative friend of mine agrees the climate is changing because of human activity, but he thinks the extent and the effect of the changes "have been exaggerated".)

Beliefs about climate change also have a regional dimension. A 2018 survey for Canada's Ecofiscal Commission showed that, while 61 percent of Canadians believed that the earth was warming, only 52 percent of Albertans agreed with the proposition. 70 percent of Canadians believed that warming is human-induced; only 54 percent of Albertans believed as much.

60 percent of Canadians wanted governments to do more to combat climate change; only 46% of Albertans wanted more action. (Frankly, it's surprising that the latter number was so high.)

The heartland of CPC support is in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Without the money and seats provided by supporters in those provinces, the CPC cannot form a government in Ottawa. On the other hand, the CPC can't win power without voters in BC, Ontario and Quebec either. The dilemma is obvious: the CPC must be squishes on climate to mollify the prairie base, especially in tar-sands-bound Alberta. But the squishiness can't be so obvious that it alienates voters in BC, Ontario and Quebec who are more likely to want climate action.

Given these political realities, the CPC must have a climate "plan", but the plan can't lead to serious action. Instead, the plan must not promise serious action, but it must contain the appearance of a commitment to serious action so that the portion of the electorate that says it cares about climate change and wants more action will not ask too many difficult questions.

A Knock at the Door

A platform created for the purposes of a leadership race is not a government white paper. It is more akin to a marketing document that promises benefits to potential consumers (supporters). But even a leadership platform should provide some coherent explanation for how the benefits will be delivered.

O'Toole's platform doesn't even promise the benefits that should matter when it comes to climate change. The time is long past when we can afford to doodle climate plans in the dust. Climate change is a serious problem that requires a serious commitment to action. O'Toole's platform is an unserious document. It fails the times in which we live.

Canada might vote again soon for a new federal government. In the last election, the local Conservative candidate showed up at our door to canvass, much to her credit given that she had about as much chance being elected Pope. My wife greeted her at the door and mentioned that we had serious doubts about the CPC climate change plan. The candidate assured my wife that the Conservative plan was just a "different approach".

The time is long past when we can allow the CPC, or any other party, to get away with this kind of obfuscation. In the next election, the CPC must be asked frequent and pointed questions of the kind set out above about its plans for combatting climate change. It's answers must be well-publicized.

The contrast between the talking points it wants to promote and the actual content of its policies must be repeated again and again. Liberal, NDP and Green partisans won't need convincing about the reality of CPC climate insincerity.

Undecided voters, however, who think climate change is a serious problem demanding serious answers, might learn a thing or two that will prevent them voting CPC if they might be otherwise so inclined.

John Loukidelis is a Hamilton lawyer who resides in Ward 1. He cycles to work every day and takes the bus when it's too cold or wet outside.


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