Are Conservatives offering a new approach to climate policy, or more of the same?

A lot of commentary about Andrew Scheer's election loss in 2019 focused on the perceived shortcomings of his climate policy. So far, none of the people running to replace him as Conservative leader are talking about offering anything radically different.

So far, we're not seeing a substantial shift away from what Andrew Scheer was offering in October

Peter MacKay addresses the crowd at a federal Conservative leadership forum during the annual general meeting of the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative party in Halifax on Saturday, February 8, 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Significantly upping the ante for this spring's Conservative leadership race, Peter MacKay used a speech this past weekend to come out strongly against eating beets.

"We're not the problem," he told a gathering of Progressive Conservatives in Halifax. "We can throw all our car keys in Halifax harbour, turn down the heat, turn off the lights, walk around naked in the dark eating organic beets and it won't make a difference."

What MacKay has against beets wasn't immediately clear (they're high in vitamins and an excellent source of fibre). But if the ballot question in the next election turns out to be whether Canadians should be asked to eat beets in the freezing dark without the benefit of clothing, MacKay will have a clear and, no doubt, popular position.

MacKay's quip was, in fact, a comment on climate change and the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions — a suggestion that Canada's emissions are a relatively unimportant factor in a global issue.

And while MacKay expressed the idea more colourfully than most, the way he framed it is still basically in keeping with what the Conservatives proposed in last year's election.

Where Conservatives are on climate change

The wider political conversation around the Conservative Party of Canada has shifted somewhat since Andrew Scheer conceded defeat last year. But the presentations by the top leadership contenders this past weekend in Halifax suggest that climate change is still a topic with which the candidates are less than keen to engage.

The next Conservative leader is almost certain to march in a Pride parade. Scheer's successor probably won't struggle noticeably to accept the fact that same-sex marriage is legal.

MacKay emphasized diversity and spoke about the importance of immigration. Marilyn Gladu said the party's interest in "fiscal responsibility" needs to be balanced with a greater focus on "social compassion."

Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu arrives for a Conservative caucus retreat on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Such messages could be significant as the party moves forward, and it may be far too early to expect any candidate to have a fully formed plan to cut Canada's emissions. But the early hints do not suggest that a great movement on climate policy is afoot inside the Conservative Party.

All three of the leading candidates — MacKay, Gladu and Erin O'Toole — are clear on at least one point: they're still firmly opposed to the Liberal government's federal carbon price.

Pinning our hopes on LNG

Of the three, Gladu gave climate policy the most time in her remarks. The Conservatives, she said, need a "credible climate change plan." She cited some areas on which it should focus: heavy emitters (she suggested they could be dealt with through a combination of tax offsets and regulations), trucks and buildings.

But like Scheer, Gladu fell back on the idea that liquefied natural gas from Canada could be used to reduce emissions in countries that are still using coal. MacKay also enthused about exporting LNG to set up his joke about beets.

The logic of focusing on LNG is debatable, as is the notion that Canada might get credit against its international climate targets for facilitating such exports. Canada has made international commitments to reduce its own emissions, but MacKay and Gladu seem to be de-emphasizing that domestic responsibility.

O'Toole, MacKay's closest rival at the moment, made only a passing comment about Conservatives favouring the use of "innovative technology to support emissions reduction at home and abroad."

Erin O'Toole addresses a federal Conservative leadership forum during the annual general meeting of the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative party in Halifax Feb. 8, 2020. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Any major gathering of Liberals or New Democrats would involve much more talk about the climate and the need to reduce emissions. The simplest conclusion to draw would be that MacKay, O'Toole and Gladu are simply responding to the Conservative electorate that is front of them.

Public opinion on climate change in Canada is sharply divided right now. There are those who view climate change as a major threat and believe reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be a government priority. And there are those who see climate change as a secondary concern and would sooner deal with other issues before making significant changes to reduce emissions.

Members of the former group tend to vote Liberal, New Democrat or Green. Members of the latter group tend to vote for the Conservatives.

Waiting for the courts to decide

In the wake of the fall federal election, when the Conservative Party's climate plan was being widely panned, it seemed apparent to many that Conservatives needed to do more to appeal to climate-conscious voters. But to win the Conservative leadership, candidates need to appeal to a pool of voters who are, at best, less interested in the issue.

For the moment, at least, the leading contenders don't seem eager to push the party much beyond the Scheer plan.

The candidates could be betting that at least part of the debate will be effectively settled for them by the time the next federal election comes around. If the Supreme Court ultimately affirms the federal government's power to impose a carbon tax, reluctant governments in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario might throw up their hands, blame Justin Trudeau and implement their own carbon pricing policies.

If the existence of the carbon tax is assured, leadership candidates might be spared the effort of proposing alternatives.

But even that wouldn't end the debate. If the Liberals keep their commitments, they'll have implemented a clean fuel standard, "just transition" legislation for unemployed energy workers, and climate change accountability legislation by the time of the next election. Would the next Conservative leader promise to uphold, enhance or repeal such measures?

Will the next Conservative leader commit to putting Canada on a path for net-zero by 2050? Will he or she continue to insist that the greatest challenge to Canada's oil and gas industry is Prime Minister Trudeau — or admit that global markets are looking increasingly to a low-carbon future?

Conservatives might be focused on a leadership vote in June right now, but this is a conversation about what the next 30 years are going to look like. And it's going to happen regardless of whether the next Conservative leader wants to take part.

After Canada made its first commitment to reduce GHG emissions in 1988 — under Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney — successive generations of leaders put off talking about what would be required to meet that commitment.

The passage of time didn't make addressing that problem any easier. In fact, it only got harder.


Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

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.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?