Andrew Scheer's climate plan leaves a lot to voters' imaginations

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer released a plan to tackle climate change this week that talks a lot about technology and home renos - and offers a lot of hand-waving on the details.

Is it a target without a plan, or a plan without a target?

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer delivers a speech on the environment in Chelsea, Que. Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Presenting the Conservative Party's climate platform on Wednesday, Andrew Scheer exulted over the document's length and weight.

"Sixty pages," he said, holding the document aloft. "Eleven thousand words."

It is, without question, a handsome document — in full colour and featuring many large photos. There are many words in it. Some of them are in large fonts. Others are in italics.

But unfortunately, none of them explain at any point how much the federal Conservatives hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through this plan.

At page 6 of their climate platform, the Conservatives seem to embrace the international target Canada committed to in signing the Paris Accord.

At page 7, the Conservatives lament that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's current plan won't reduce emissions enough to meet Canada's international target for 2030 — a complaint that the Conservatives have loudly voiced in recent days.

But on none of the other 58 pages do the Conservatives account for how they would do better, or how they would even maintain Canada's current path. Much is left to the imagination.

Long on tax-bashing, short on specifics

The Conservatives vow, of course, to repeal the broad-based carbon levy and rebate policy the Liberals have implemented in four provinces (and which will soon be coming to Alberta) — and they also would eliminate the output-based pricing system that the Trudeau government has brought in for the largest, trade-exposed industries.

Facilities that produce more than 40 kilotonnes of emissions would, under the Conservative plan, be required to invest a "set amount" in the development, research or use of emissions-reducing technology. The amount per tonne is not specified in the plan, nor are the industry-specific limits that would be imposed. Eligible investments would have to be officially certified, the Conservatives say, but companies also would be able to invest in themselves to fulfil the requirement.

Currently, the Liberals' policy for heavy emitters applies to facilities that emit more than 50 kt and, in that respect, the Conservatives argue that their policy would have wider coverage. But under the Liberal plan, facilities that emit less than 50 kt are subject to the carbon levy on fuel. Under the Conservative plan, no policy would be applied to facilities that emit less than 40 kt.

In keeping with their emphasis on "technology," the Conservatives would establish a "green patent credit" that would lower the corporate tax rate for "income that is generated from green technology developed and patented in Canada," while a Conservative government would put up $250 million to establish a venture capital fund focused on green technology. (The Trudeau government already has committed $50 million to its own venture capital program, part of a larger commitment to spend $2.3 billion on clean tech.)

Back to the retrofit plan

Scheer's Conservatives would commit $1.8 billion to a two-year program of tax credits for homeowners to retrofit their homes, effectively reinstating a measure that Stephen Harper's government cancelled in 2012. The subsidies are understandably popular with homeowners, but similar programs have been panned for getting "very little bang for the buck."

Ten pages in the document are devoted to conservation efforts. The final ten pages are committed to explaining a Conservative commitment to reduce emissions in other countries.

The thinking here is that Canadian technology and resources could be deployed around the world, with Canada receiving some credit for the resulting reductions, which could then be put toward Canada's commitment for 2030. The Paris Accord does provide for such arrangements, but the details have not yet been finalized and any bilateral agreements obviously would be subject to negotiation.

However theoretical, the Trudeau government has suggested already that it might also pursue such credits. Scheer, for instance, suggests that liquefied natural gas from Canada might displace more emissions-intensive fuels in other countries. The minister of natural resources floated a similar idea two weeks ago.

At least one analyst has criticized that option. Regardless, Scheer's Conservatives aren't quite making a proposal that wouldn't be available to a Liberal government.

That Canada still needs to do more to reach its 2030 target is something very much worth discussing.

Since 2015, federal and provincial policies have reduced Canada's projected emissions for 2030 by more than 200 megatonnes, leaving a projected gap of 79 megatonnes. But the gap for the Conservatives would be something closer to 130 megatonnes — accounting for the fact that the Conservatives would repeal the Liberal carbon pricing plan, a policy that is expected to reduce emissions by 50 to 60 megatonnes.

If the Conservatives are reluctant to explain how they'd do that, it might be because their greatest complaints about the Liberal plan are that it involves a carbon tax and that it will cost too much for the average Canadian (ignoring the household rebates that are part of the Liberal plan).

An audience that's asking for less

To explain how they would achieve greater reductions at a lower cost, while not implementing any kind of carbon tax, might be near to impossible.

But then, Conservatives are also playing to a particular audience. Public polling has shown consistently that Conservative supporters are less concerned about climate change than those who are inclined to vote for the Liberals or New Democrats. Scheer surely can't afford to ignore the issue entirely — but he needs to do less to carry, say, 40 per cent of the vote than Justin Trudeau or Jagmeet Singh will feel compelled to do.

That seems as good an explanation as any for what Scheer presented on Wednesday.

He can't say how he would fulfil Canada's international commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But he can say he has a "plan" — 60 pages and 11,000 words and many nice pictures. And he can say that it doesn't include a carbon tax.

And maybe he thinks that's enough.

CBC Politics' new weekly Canada Votes newsletter

Get analysis from our Parliamentary bureau as we count down to the federal election. Delivered to your inbox every Sunday evening – then daily during the campaign. Sign up here.


Aaron Wherry

Senior writer

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.