NDP climate plan long on ambition, short on substance (again)

To raise the level of debate and present a credible alternative on climate, the NDP needs to do better to describe how it will engage in policy change, writes climate and energy policy economist Jennifer Winter.

There's much of the same text as 2019, and the same photo of Jagmeet Singh in a canoe. So what's new? Not much

The NDP climate platform is more ambitious than the platforms of the Liberals and Conservatives, but it is light on implementation details, says economist Jennifer Winter. (ndp.ca)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second 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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If you follow federal politics — and pay attention to party platforms — you might be confused by the 2021 NDP climate plan and wonder if it is any different from 2019. There is the same picture of Jagmeet Singh in a canoe, and much of the same text. So what's new?

As it turns out, not much. There is more text (perhaps in response to previous critiques that the 2019 platform was short on details) but hardly any substantive change in the key policy ideas the NDP offers. The platform focuses on climate and jobs, is more ambitious than the Liberal and Conservative plans, blames past Liberal and Conservative governments for inaction, but is again light on implementation details.

Take the proposed actions in the platform.

A long list of actions

The NDP proposes an emissions target of 50 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030; setting up national and sectoral carbon budgets; continuing with emissions pricing, making electricity net-zero by 2030, and 100 per cent non-emitting by 2040; eliminating fossil fuel subsidies; increasing the stringency of methane emissions targets; subsidies for zero-emissions vehicles; building retrofits; making new buildings net-zero by 2025; and implementing border carbon adjustments. 

(For those unfamiliar, border carbon adjustments tax imports to account for differences in emissions pricing in other jurisdictions. It is the new in-vogue climate policy — the Liberals, Conservatives and NDP are all in favour of it, in part spurred by European Union and U.S. exploration of the policy.)

That is a long list of policy actions. What's new in it? Methane emissions, the timeline for zero-emissions electricity (2040 instead of 2050), and border carbon adjustments. That's it. At a time when climate change is a top issue for voters, it's a surprise and a shame that the NDP didn't do more to refresh and expand their climate policy actions. 

(In fairness, there is also a mention of access to affordable high-speed broadband for every Canadian. Not that I'm opposed, but it does seem out of place in the climate section of the platform.)

Still overly vague

In the parts that aren't new, the details are still frustratingly vague.

For example, in discussing carbon pricing, the NDP states they "will continue with carbon pricing while making it fairer and rolling back loopholes this Liberal government has given to big polluters." I have questions — let's unpack them.

First, what does "continue" mean? Will the NDP keep the Liberals' carbon pricing path, to $170 per tonne in 2030? Be more stringent? Less stringent? Why not explicitly state what they think is the appropriate carbon price?

Second, why is the current system unfair? And to whom? Are they referring to revenue collection, or expenditure, or both? My research suggests carbon pricing is actually progressive, as is the Liberal approach with lump-sum rebates.

Third, what loopholes? If this is a reference to the federal output-based pricing system (OBPS), call a spade a spade. The OBPS is a deliberate policy choice to reduce the costs of carbon pricing for industries designated as emissions-intensive and trade-exposed. It's fine to disagree on the policy action, but if so, what would the NDP implement in its place?

The NDP promise a target of net-zero electricity by 2030, but don't say how they will get there or whether it is even feasible, writes economist Jennifer Winter. (Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press)

Relatedly, will this force federal policy on provinces? Most provinces have their own provincial system; does the NDP intend to eliminate the flexibility in the current system which allows provinces to implement climate plans on their own, subject to a minimum standard?

If the NDP considers the OBPS a loophole, do they also think Quebec's choice to give free emissions permits to large emitters participating in its cap-and-trade system is a loophole?

This is but one example of the disappointing lack of detail in the NDP platform. On methane emissions, all the platform says is that the NDP will increase "the ambition of those targets in the 2025-30 period." By how much? They don't even identify the sources of methane emissions they are concerned with, though I imagine its oil and gas.

The NDP promises a target of "net-zero electricity by 2030" and "100 per cent non-emitting electricity by 2040." Laudable, but how?

This is very challenging regionally, and requires massive investments in new generation and transmission infrastructure. Provinces have jurisdiction over electricity generation, and it took five years to shift carbon pricing from an idea to a relatively settled area of federal jurisdiction. A federal mandate like this would likely face the same challenges as carbon pricing legislation — how would an NDP government address this, and is it even feasible?

Missing the mark (again)

Finally, the NDP entirely sidesteps the issue of the oilsands, a major source of Canadian emissions; the only mention of bitumen is in reference to the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Overall, the NDP climate plan is more of the same vagueness and platitudes as in 2019. Achieving their ambitious and aggressive emissions reduction target requires concrete policy actions. 

To raise the level of debate and present a credible alternative on climate, the NDP needs to do better to describe how and why it'll engage in policy change.

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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.