With Singh's environment plan, the left-centre climate change bidding war begins

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has rolled out a climate change strategy that is both ambitious and carefully vague — and seems designed, in part, to keep the Greens from eating the New Democrats' lunch.

It's aspirational and unclear — and it's designed to keep the Greens at bay while boxing in the Liberals

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh presents the party's plan for climate change in Montreal on Friday, May 31, 2019. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

R.B. Bennett might have warned Jagmeet Singh against framing the NDP's climate plan the way he did Friday morning.

"I've been inspired by people who want to bring a green new deal to Canada," the NDP leader said. "Canadians need and want a new deal."

And so, Singh released what the NDP is calling a "new deal for climate action and good jobs" — a sprawling (but still somewhat notional) agenda for preserving the planet.

In January 1935, having struggled to respond to the Great Depression, Prime Minister Bennett announced a series of social welfare reforms and economic interventions that resembled the "New Deal" that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had started implementing two years earlier.

Bennett never himself referred to his plan as a "new deal," but critics applied the tag derisively and the name stuck. Bennett's "new deal" is remembered now as a belated pivot that came much too late to save a doomed prime minister.

U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) hold a news conference for their proposed "Green New Deal" to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions in 10 years, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S. February 7, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Last year, two American Democrats — one of them the popular and charismatic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — introduced what they referred as to as the "Green New Deal," a sweeping (but vague) plan for government intervention to deal with the global emergency of climate change. The basic idea of a Rooseveltian response proved interesting enough that some Canadian progressives began to agitate for something similar.

The NDP feels the heat from the Greens

What Singh brought forward on Friday was an attempt to capture a similar sense of excitement — a feeling that has been lacking around Singh since he became leader of the NDP in October 2017. It's also another move in the progressive bidding war on climate action — with Singh now needing to fend off the Greens to hold third place.

Two weeks ago, Elizabeth May's Green Party announced that it would aim to cut Canada's greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, without quite explaining how they would do that. Singh's New Democrats aren't yet committing to a specific target, though they do say that they would set a target that is "in line with stabilizing the global temperature increase at 1.5 degrees Celsius." That, they figure, would mean a reduction of somewhere between 40 per cent and 50 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

How would a Singh government get there? It's not entirely clear. The NDP plan does spend several pages throwing out an array of ideas that New Democrats claim would result in an emissions cut of 38 per cent. But they aren't showing their math yet.

Like the American version, Singh's new deal speaks more about investment and jobs than restrictions and regulation. There's a section on training and income support, with a focus on workers in "carbon-intensive industries."

The current federal framework includes commitments to increase energy efficiency and retrofit buildings. But Singh sets a target to retrofit all housing stock in Canada by 2050. Meanwhile, a "climate bank" would be established to "spur investment in the low carbon economy."

Status quo on carbon pricing

A "Climate Accountability Office" would be established to track and report on the government's progress. Like the Liberals, the NDP would act to advance the adoption of electric and zero-emission vehicles. The total budget for all measures in the platform document is pegged at $15 billion over four years.

While vowing to be bolder than Justin Trudeau's government, Singh's New Democrats say they will leave the federal carbon price as it is. Apparently they've seen how hard it is for the Liberals to sell the current price and decided against trying to win support for an even higher rate.

What they would change, slightly, is the way large, trade-exposed industries are handled. The Liberals have adopted an "output-based pricing system" for such emitters, modelled after a similar system introduced in Alberta by Rachel Notley's NDP government. In the word of the federal NDP, a Singh government would be committed to "rolling back the breaks the Liberals have given to big polluters."

The output-based system is a little more complicated than that.

The two-part industrial system involves a carbon levy and a subsidy, with the subsidy linked to the average emissions intensity in a given sector. The Liberals originally proposed that emitters would receive a subsidy that covered 70 per cent of the average. After consulting with industry, the Liberals set thresholds at 80 per cent or 90 per cent of the average. If a firm emits less than that, it receives a credit that it can sell to a firm that emits above that mark.

The NDP isn't proposing to eliminate the system. Rather, they say they want to set the subsidy thresholds back at 70 per cent.

The system is meant to ensure companies that compete internationally don't simply relocate their emissions-producing activities to countries with lower standards. But both the Conservatives and New Democrats have criticized that approach as a special concession. Now, the NDP is suggesting it plans on "rolling back the breaks the Liberals have given to big polluters" — which could have some economic impact.

Torontonians wait for public transit. The NDP's environmental plan holds out the vague possibility of making some transit services free. (John Rieti/CBC)

Other promises in the NDP plan seem more wishful. A commitment to promote free public transit is cast as both conditional and aspirational: "For provinces and municipalities that identify it as a priority, we will help them build towards fare-free transit."

A Singh government would also "use the powers of the federal government to ensure that the provinces set and meet interim emissions reduction targets in the lead up to 2030 and 2050."

Apparently undaunted by the Trudeau government's toil and trouble over the last four years to get the provinces to accept a common policy approach, a Singh government would aim to negotiate and enforce targets for each province. Members of the Ottawa press gallery would at least be happy to have a few more fractious first ministers' conferences to cover.

The New Democrats have five months to fill in more details on what they would do and how they would do it, but this new list of commitments does at least present a challenge for the Liberals. For the past two years, they've had to defend themselves from Conservative complaints that they were doing too much. The NDP and the Greens now will hit them from the other side, arguing that they should do more.

At the moment, the greater threat for the Liberals is still from the Conservatives. But Singh might now have a rallying cry, however unoriginal, to apply a little pressure of his own.


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.


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