Liberal Party continues balancing act with unnecessarily vague plan on climate

The Liberals' record on climate is respectable, so it’s hard to see why they don’t leverage their record and present a clear plan with detailed actions for climate policy in Canada, says economist Jennifer Winter.

Their plan is more ambitious than the Conservatives, and less ambitious than the NDP or Greens

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau announces an updated climate change plan in December, 2020. His party's climate platform promises to deliver on all of the measures included in that plan, but according to economist Jennifer Winter, it is unnecessarily vague about what the Liberals have accomplished and what they intend to achieve. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third 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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The Liberals have both the easiest and the hardest job of any party this election.

Their job is easy because they can run on their record, which on climate is respectable. But their record is a double-edged sword — the party has to convince voters that their ideas are new and innovative, rather than incremental. As with the 2019 election, the Liberals are engaging in a delicate balancing act.

So, how does the Liberal climate plan, A Cleaner, Greener Future, stack up?

Long list of actions

The climate plan starts by reminding us of the Liberals' "key actions to fight climate change since 2015". To be fair, they have a lot to be proud of. And whether you like their policy choices or not — or think they should have done more or less — the Liberals have done more to advance climate policy than any other Canadian government, federal or provincial.

Implementing broad-based carbon pricing in the face of fairly substantial political opposition? Check.

Regulating methane emissions from the oil and gas sector? Check.

Putting net zero emissions targets in law? Check.

Setting Canada's most aggressive 2030 and 2050 emissions targets? Check.

These are just a few examples of the Liberal government's policy actions over the last six years (they have 21). Most importantly for this election, they are the only federal government — Liberal or Conservative — to implement climate policies consistent with the goals they set.

They also acknowledge some of the challenges Canada faces: oil and gas emissions, transportation emissions, retrofitting buildings, build-out of electric vehicle charging stations, employment transitions, and greening the electricity grid.

And yet, despite promoting all that they've done and the more ambitious actions ahead, the Liberal plan is pretty much as vague as the other parties' plans. 

Why shy away?

The new promises are numerous. They promise to "deliver on all policy and fiscal" measures from their December 2020 climate plan, and commit to keeping a rising price on emissions (plus rebates). They promise to cut emissions from oil and gas, and eliminate fossil-fuel subsidies. They propose a Clean Electricity Standard to "achieve a 100 per cent net-zero emitting electricity system by 2035." They promise green jobs

However, the promises lack detail about implementation. Why shy away from what they've accomplished and what they intend to achieve?

Let's start with emissions pricing. The platform states a "re-elected Liberal government will continue to put a rising price on pollution, while putting more money back into the pockets of Canadians." Great. Now all major parties are committing to carbon pricing (yes, even the Conservatives, though their price stops at $50 per tonne). But what rising price will the Liberals put in place?

Pumpjacks draw oil out of the ground near Olds, Alta. The Liberal Party's climate plan says fossil fuel subsidies will be eliminated. That’s great, says economist Jennifer Winter, but what subsidies, and where? (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

If we look back at the December 2020 climate plan, the planned increase is $15 per tonne per year starting in 2023, up to $170 per tonne in 2030. Why isn't this in the platform? Are the Liberals afraid to promote their pricing plan? Or are they planning to be more aggressive and don't want to admit it yet? Perhaps they'll need to be more aggressive in order to meet the incredibly ambitious goal of emissions reductions 40-45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The platform claims it will eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. That's great. What subsidies, and where? Does this mean that large emitters combusting fossil fuels — like natural-gas-fired electricity — will be excluded from the industrial emissions pricing system and face the full cost of emissions pricing?

The Liberals' ambitions for electricity are just as vague. Achieving 100 per cent net-zero electricity by 2035 is a tall order. Like the NDP plan of net-zero electricity by 2030, this is laudable, but not necessarily implementable. And how is the Clean Electricity Standard different from the emissions intensity standard for electricity generation in the industrial emissions pricing system?

How ambitious is it, really?

The climate platform is missing any explicit reference to the environment chapter in Budget 2021, which outlined climate policy measures more substantial than the December 2020 plan. It's puzzling that the platform relies on a document that became outdated in April 2021, while at the same time proposing some measures that are more ambitious and ignoring other budget policy measures.

For example, the budget allocated $1.5 billion for a Clean Fuels Fund to support production and distribution of new fuels like hydrogen. There's no mention in the platform.

Another example — the budget included an investment tax credit for carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS). Consultations on the tax credit took place over the summer. Yet, there is no mention of CCUS in the platform, beyond a vague reference to an "investment tax credit of up to 30 per cent for a range of clean technologies including low carbon and net-zero technologies." 

Is the CCUS credit off the table? Will the list of eligible technologies expand? Will oil and gas be included? Interestingly, the only exclusion in the budget for the CCUS tax credit is enhanced oil recovery. The tax credit would not subsidise oil and gas specifically, but oil and gas, petrochemical plants, and fossil-based electricity are likely to benefit. Does the new vagueness in the platform — combined with eliminating fossil fuel subsidies — mean that these sectors will be excluded from the tax credit?

Occupying the middle

In the end, the Liberal platform is remarkably similar to that of other parties. It's more ambitious than the Conservatives, and less ambitious than the NDP or Greens. They happily occupy the middle ground on climate, and match the other parties on vagueness.

Worse, it's confusing; they're running on their record but not making clear the changes relative to past policy announcements and obfuscating elsewhere. 

Perhaps this reflects that climate policy is less of a wedge issue than in the past. But if that's the case, it's hard to see why the Liberals don't leverage their record and present a clear plan with detailed actions for climate policy in Canada.

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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.