Green Party climate platform is both ambitious and unrealistic

Meeting the Green Party climate targets, even partially, requires a heavy-handed and top-down federal approach. It also ignores our Constitution, writes economist Jennifer Winter.

Once again, it seems the Green Party climate plan adds up to Mission: Improbable

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul is running on an aggressive climate platform with some interesting (and smart) approaches to emissions reductions. But there's also a lot to dislike, writes economist Jennifer Winter. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth in a series of articles from climate and energy policy economist Jennifer Winter about the federal political parties' climate plans. Read her other articles here:

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On climate policy, this election should have been the Green Party's to lose. It is the one party whose sole focus is climate, and this is reflected in their platform, Be Daring. Given the events of the past summer — wildfires, the heat dome, record-breaking temperatures — it's unfortunate the Green Party didn't release its platform until Sept. 7.

The platform lays out the challenge ahead of us: substantial emissions reductions to mitigate the worsening impacts of climate change. The Green Party does an admirable job of linking climate to other areas of policy. And the Green Party spends a total of 33 pages on climate policy with Green Future, far more than the other parties.

The party proposes aggressive emissions reductions: 60 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and achieving net zero "as quickly as possible," with a carbon budget and targets to support both. They pitch an acceleration in carbon pricing, with increases of $25 per tonne per year starting in 2022. Like everyone else, the Greens are in favour of border carbon adjustments.

The platform has some interesting (and smart) approaches to more targeted emissions reductions. An example is the proposed buy-back program for internal combustion engine vehicles. Potentially expensive, yes, but a way to reduce personal transportation emissions that is complementary to carbon taxes. 

Another example is vastly expanding zero-emissions public transportation (both inter- and intra-city). This could potentially fill the gap left by Greyhound, increase Canadians' mobility, and help regional companies create a cross-country network.

Willful ignorance or artful dissembling?

Unfortunately, there's also a lot to dislike about the Green Party platform, including some artful dissembling.

It's de rigueur for opposing parties to attack the governing party. But I find the Green Party's statement about the Liberal government's actions on climate — "six years of failure" — a little hard to swallow. As I (and others) argued previously, the Liberals have done more to advance climate policy than any other Canadian government, federal or provincial. Yes, the Greens want more, but I'd hardly call implementing and defending a national emissions pricing act in court (against provinces, no less!) a failure.

Also, for the record, Canada's emissions are down 8.5 million tonnes (1.1 per cent) relative to 2005. (The Greens note in their platform that emissions are 21 per cent above 1990 levels, and given their own target is relative to 2005, this seems like cherry picking.) Emissions have decreased in all sectors except for oil and gas and energy use in transportation.

Yes, oil and gas is a significant source of emissions (26 per cent in 2019). But so is transportation (25 per cent), heavy industry (11 per cent), buildings (12 per cent), agriculture (10 per cent), electricity (8.4 per cent), and waste (seven per cent).

Three windmills in a row on the flat horizon of a field in Alberta.
The Greens propose transforming Canada’s electricity generation to 100 per cent renewable by 2030. Their party platform is nothing more than a wholesale transformation of how and where Canadians use energy, writes economist Jennifer Winter. (Dave Rae/CBC)

A wholesale transformation

The Green's emissions-reduction target is nothing more than a wholesale transformation of how and where Canadians use energy. In nine years! (To be clear, all parties propose a transition. The key question is pace and scale over what time period.)

The Greens propose transforming Canada's electricity generation to 100 per cent renewable by 2030. With no nuclear! (And likely, no large-scale hydro as well, though they aren't explicit.)

In 2020, combustion-based electricity generation ranged between 17 and 21 per cent of Canada's total generation. There are major distributional consequences by region, especially for provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan with heavy reliance on fossil fuel generation, and Nunavut, which is 100 per cent reliant on fossil fuels for electricity.

The Green plan is for 100 per cent renewable electricity, not 100 per cent non-emitting electricity. This means there is no option for fossil-fuel electricity generation combined with carbon capture and storage. It means that good-faith investments — billions of dollars — by private companies and provincial or territorial Crown corporations would be worthless under the Green plan. 

And it's also ignoring the immense physical, financial and technical challenges associated with wholesale investment in new electricity infrastructure.

So much for collaborative federalism

Meeting the Green Party agenda, even partially, requires a heavy-handed and top-down federal approach. It also ignores our Constitution. 

There is little mention of the role of provinces and territories in climate policy (or working with them), except for a reference to linking provincial grids.

Electricity generation? Provincial/territorial jurisdiction.

Natural resource production? Provincial/territorial jurisdiction. (The Greens plan to end all fossil fuel extraction by 2035. That'll be an interesting federal-provincial-territorial "discussion.")

Infrastructure planning and development? Both federal and provincial jurisdiction, and also municipally implemented.

It's possible that a Green Party government could get around the constitutional issues by regulating emissions from these sectors and other industries, forcing the changes they want. Most likely it would result in an era of uncooperative federalism, worse than today.

Ambitious, but not doable

In the end, it seems the Green Party platform adds up to Mission: Improbable yet again. 

And like the other parties, the Green Party's platform is short on the implementation details necessary to truly evaluate whether their proposed Green Future is "an ambitious and doable plan that will secure Canada's sustainable prosperity." Unfortunately, I think not.

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Jennifer Winter is an associate professor in the Department of Economics and Scientific Director of Energy and Environmental Policy at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. She researches Canadian climate and energy policy.