03 May 2011

What Does Canada's Election Mean for Climate Policy?

In case you missed it, Canada just had an historic election.  Bryan Walsh asks, what it might mean for climate policy?  He gives this answer:
As it turns out, nothing very good. I'll explain why in a second, but first of all, there's something you need to know about Canada. Americans like to picture Canada as a progressive, friendly, extremely green and Kyoto Protocol-signing sort of country—and in many ways it is. But the truth is, Canada is also a petrostate. The country has 175.2 billion barrels of oil in reserves, third-most in the world, and it produces 2.6 million barrels of crude oil a day. When we think of foreign oil in the U.S., most of us imagine a Saudi sheik or a Venezuelan despot, but the single biggest supplier of foreign oil to the U.S. is our friendly neighbor to the north. And thanks to the growth of oil sands (or tar sands, depending on how polluting you consider them), petroleum and fossil fuel energy in general has only become more important to the Canadian economy, moving the country's power center to the West, where politicians like Harper hail from.

So Harper's clear victory means you can expect more industry-friendly policies from the now ruling Conservative Party, which is a little bit like Republicans-lite. That also means that Canada will continue its antagonism on the global climate stage, where it has long since abandoned any possibility of meeting its Kyoto carbon reduction targets, not that it was going to happen anyway. (Harper, back in a 2002 letter, referred to the Kyoto Protocol as a "socialist scheme.") Like his ideological counterpart George W. Bush, Harper doesn't seem to have much interest in dealing with climate change or energy, aside from the oil and gas that has helped Canada thrive recently. His position was in stark opposition to the opposition NDP, which offered more support for clean energy and—importantly—was ready to offer a carbon cap-and-trade program. But the Conservatives argued—in very familiar language—that carbon pricing would be increase energy prices and be a drag on the economy. Last night—in a possible example of what Roger Pielke Jr.'s "iron law of climate policy"—the Conservatives won, meaning that for now, carbon pricing in Canada is even less likely than it will be in the U.S.

It wasn't all bad—the fact that the Green Party now has a member in parliament puts Canada ahead of the U.S., while the NDP has proven to be a stronger green party on its own than the Liberals ever were. Harper's Conservatives may have a majority in Parliament, but they won less than 40% of the vote by number, meaning that public opinion on climate and the environment may be significantly more divided than the results suggest. And like in America, climate change and energy policy doesn't appear to have been a major issue for most voters. But there's no getting around the fact, as University of British Columbia political scientist George Hoberg blogged today:
The 2011 Canadian election is very bad news for the climate movement.
Walsh's full post is here.


  1. As a Canadian, I'll make a few supplementary observations. In 2008, the Green Party won 6.8% of the national vote. Yesterday, despite the fact that it managed to win its first ever seat (the leader of the party's 3rd attempt, this time running in the most left-leaning part of the country), its overall support dropped to 3.7%


    Yesterday's vote was historic in that it saw two formerly influential political parties get virtually wiped out - the Liberal Party and the separatist Bloc Quebecois. This represents a seismic shift in the political landscape. Yet even with all this turbulence the Greens not only failed to get traction, they lost ground.

    Donna Laframboise

  2. "The 2011 Canadian election is very bad news for the climate movement."

    Your opinion, but the election is a great step forward in moving beyond the hysteria and fear mongering of the global warming industry and the restoration of real science - not the "trust me, I refuse to reveal my data or methods" so beloved by the Climate Scientology we have come to expect form the IPCC and our universities.

    Yes a wonderful day to be Canadian, to drive a stake through the green propaganda machine and restore balanced environmental policies.

    Our country will be saved the monumental public policy stupidity of carbon pricing and Canada will now be sure to drive a stake through the cold green heart of Kyoto 2 negotiations. Because Stephen Harper was right when he described Kyoto 1 as an international socialist ponzi scheme . . . because that is exactly what it is.

    We we also have a real conservative government in place when the IPCC Five is released, so we can have a proper response to what no doubt will be another WWF/Greenpeace agitprop document on UN letterhead and masquerading as real "science"

    Oh and having Lizzie May in parliament for comic relief will be greatly appreciated . . . she steered 99% of the Green Party resources into her riding in a Gottadamerung campaign to get her elected . . . and in doing so caused a 40% drop in voter support to the Green Party.

    And don't worry, Obama may be intent on destroying the American economy and energy sector, but Canada will be there to help out when you guys come to your senses and boot his butt form office.

  3. I don't really know Canadian politics but it seems that climate change has become a pocket-book issue as opposed to a philosophical stance on priorities that appeal to emotion. People might be willing to spend $10 a month to save the planet but when the price tag goes to $100 per month and you throw in job insecurity, people start asking what they are going to get for their money. Obama realizes this is an antogonistic issue so he makes no mention of it, Julia Gillard is finding how much Australians like to hold onto their money and Canada has now voted for economics over ecology. Environmental over-reach may be hard to recover from politically.

  4. How is having a party that will not kow tow to AGW fanatics a bad thing?
    At least we have people talking openly about there being a 'climate movement' now.
    So 'climate' is sloly jioning that list of other failed or stalled out 'progressive' ovements that will assure yet more NGO's a steady stream of donors, and endless posturing about some moral authority to be worried about the 'climate'.
    Congrats to Canada for stepping back from the, to borrow a phrase, the cliamte abyss.

  5. As a Canadian, I find it surprising that Prime Minister Harper is seen as an "ideological counterpart[of] George W. Bush,". He would be more akin to a centrist Democrat in the US. As for climate policy, his policy was to follow that of the US as it is Canada's largest trading partner. His cabinet minister responsible for climate was not averse to a cap and trade program. The decision was made not to go ahead with this to the jeopardy of trade with the US.

    As someone who follows Canadian politics, I do not find the quoted posting insightful

  6. "And like in America, climate change and energy policy doesn't appear to have been a major issue for most voters."


    See the sad story of Stephane Dion in 2008.

    Conservatives made the biggest gains in Ontario where many historically Liberal ridings went Conservative, even in urban areas. Some pundits speculate this is a repudiation of the Provincial Liberals who face an election this fall.

    Now if you wanna take a look at some hilariously poor energy policy see the Ontario Lib's "Green Energy Act".

    Noble Intentions + Higher Electricity Bills = Plummeting poll numbers.

  7. Another point to make about popular vote: a little better than 60% of eligible voters came out to vote yesterday. Combining the 40% that voted for the conservatives and the 40% that didn't vote, you could say 80% of Canadian voters don't care about climate change, or certainly not enough to implement drastic measures to control carbon emissions which the Kyoto Protocol called for.
    Regardless, yay to Harper and to at least four years of stable fiscally responsible federal government.

  8. Menth said... 6

    Noble Intentions + Higher Electricity Bills = Plummeting poll numbers.

    Canada has the same problem in passing 'climate legislation' at the Federal Level that the US does.

    Disproportionate impact.

    Here is a table of electricity generation by source by province in Canada.

    Quebec, Manitoba , British Columbia and New Foundland are all at 90%+ Fossil Free electricity generation already. For them 'action on climate change' involves a few symbolic windmills.

    For Alberta , Saskatchewan and to a lesser extent Ontario, 'action on climate change' involves serious financial pain.

  9. Some observations from a resident Canadian.

    1. Support for the Conservatives is at about the same level that it was for the past few elections. The reason it was able to secure a majority this time around is largely due to vote splitting between the NDP and the Liberals in the urban vote-rich Greater Toronto Area (GTA). Of course it also helped that the Liberals had a leader that had very little charisma and was very effectively branded as an opportunistic sellout by Republican style attack ads.

    2. As in the U.S., voting is more about identity politics than it is about substantive (dis)agreements about policy. The conservative base is much more loyal than the Lib/NDP base, but in neither case was climate change a core ‘wedge’ issue.

    3. I’d suggest that the Conservative position wrt to climate change policy is considerably out of step with a significant majority of Canadians. Remember that nearly 2/3rds of voters chose another party (and all of those parties are more supportive of climate policy).

    4. Climate change was a complete non-issue in this campaign for all but the Green Party. All of the parties on the left were leery of a repeat of the 2008 election when the Conservatives used the carbon tax portion of the Liberal platform to impale another uncharasmatic leader, Stephane Dion.

    5. Harrywr2, you are wrong, for a couple of reasons. First, in principle it should be much easier to pass climate legislation in Canada than in the U.S., for the simple reason that we do not have an effective, elected Senate (no pesky 60 vote supermajority in a chamber that is disproportionately dominated by smaller, regional interests). Second, and more importantly, far more of the seats in the House of Commons are to be found in provinces that have zero or near zero GHG emissions from electricity (BC, Manitoba, Quebec, Ontario). Provinces with the higher electricity emission intensity (i.e. reliance on coal) make up less than 14% of the seats in the House of Commons. Look at the electricity intensity tables by province and then the seat distribution in the House of Commons to see for yourself.

    6. Ironically, I think that the continued uncertainty on the climate file could hurt investment in the oil patch. If you talk to the industry folks, many of them say the same thing. They know that some form of carbon pricing will come and would rather know when and how much, so that they can adjust their investment decisions accordingly.

    Close to half of the projected rate increases in electricity rates are due to infrastructure upgrades (see (see here for details) that weren't made by pevious governments. It's not all because of renewables, just so you know.

  10. re 8

    For Alberta , Saskatchewan and to a lesser extent Ontario, 'action on climate change' involves serious financial pain.

    Quebec has a large surplus of hydroelectricity and a large potential for more. Quebec has offered to sell this to Ontario. Ontario has refused this and has instead chosen to provide high feed-in tariffs for solar and wind. The intednt of this was to jump stat a renewbale energy manufacturing indistry in Ontario. eh rality are electricity rates that are rising and will rise a great deal more with no sign of any renewable energy manufacturing industry.

    Th Ontario government has chosen to subsidize electricity rates from other revenue to forestall a consumer rebellion. The "serious financial pain" that Ontario is experiencing for AGW mitigation is a pain that has been chosen by the government.

  11. Marlowe Johnson

    Could you reconcile these two sentences for me?

    "I’d suggest that the Conservative position wrt to climate change policy is considerably out of step with a significant majority of Canadians. Remember that nearly 2/3rds of voters chose another party (and all of those parties are more supportive of climate policy)."

    "All of the parties on the left were leery of a repeat of the 2008 election when the Conservatives used the carbon tax portion of the Liberal platform to impale another uncharasmatic leader, Stephane Dion."


  12. @john m

    no problem. climate change is not a 'wedge issue' in federal Canadian politics at the moment BUT Canadians do support mitigation policies to a much larger degree than the Conservative Party (or their American Republican counterparts). CAVEAT -- Canada, like the U.S. is a big place and there are of course different views regionally and on a urban/rural basis.

    Practically what this means is that a political party's policy position on climate change isn't likely to sway an 'undecided' voter one way or another (for better or for worse). IMO this is more a result of our first-past-the-post electoral system of voting (which we share with the U.S. and the UK) than anything else. In this sort of system voters are forced to choose candidates on a 'basket' of policies rather than voting for any particular issue that is of paramount concern to them.

    Nevertheless, I doubt that climate change would suddenly top the list, regardless of the voting system, but nor do I think that it would be as underplayed as it is has been and continues to be...

    More importantly, I would suggest that it is a mistake to imply that the Conservatives electoral success doesn't mean that most Canadians aren't uncomfortable with the Conservatives policy position on climate change...

    Rather, it just means that they were willing to overlook and/or were more concerned with other considerations when they voted (e.g. less than half of nanos poll respondents considered ANY policy positions to be the most relevant factor in their voting preferences for what it's worth). If/when the public do become uncomfortable enough, climate change may become a 'wedge' issue. I'm not holding my breath FWIW.

    Does that mean i'm an 'iron law subscriber'? No.

    Hope that helps.

  13. -12-Marlowe Johnson

    "Does that mean i'm an 'iron law subscriber'? No."

    Just to be clear ... if you think that Canada is unwilling to reduce its GDP (or less strongly, its GDP growth) by some noticeable amount to achieve emissions reduction goals, then you subscribe to the iron law.

    I see no evidence that Canada is willing to take such drastic economic steps, do you?


  14. Roger,

    Thought that last comment might get your attention :)

    When you frame it in absolute terms, of course I agree/subscribe. No country will subordinate its economic goals to its climate goals (whatever they may be). However, I don't find this absolutist framing particularly interesting or useful.

    The question that gets my inner economist going is how much are people willing to pay (WTP) to mitigate climate change. How does WTP vary among regions/countries? More importantly, why does it vary? Why is it that carbon taxes in BC are viable, but not in Texas? Why do people spend hours lining up at gas stations to save a couple of dollars but leave their thermostats 3 degrees higher/lower than it needs to be?

    Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Ontario is in the process of shutting down all of its coal-fired power plants (see link above). Whether or not the electorate penalizes the goverment for that particular policy remains to be seen. But surely you'd agree that a 30 Mt GHG reduction (by 2020) is nothing to sneeze at. At the other end of the country B.C. is set to raise its carbon tax to $25/tCO2e. Are these actions by themselves enough to reach the 2020 or 2050 targets? No, but they are significant steps.

  15. -14-Marlowe Johnson

    Thanks, but of course none of this has anything to do with the "iron law" ;-)

    As you know, I don't think much of "reductions" from a counterfactual baseline. Let's see what happens to rates of Canadian decarbonization ... I'd guess not too much (30 Mt = ~3 days China emissions), but let's see what the data say.


  16. Marlowe Johnson,

    Thanks for your detailed and patient reply.

    But I'm still having trouble reconciling the second quotation in my question with everything else you've had to say wrt to climate policy not being the electoral issue in Canada that it is in the US.


    "All of the parties on the left were leery of a repeat of the 2008 election when the Conservatives used the carbon tax portion of the Liberal platform to impale another uncharasmatic leader, Stephane Dion."

  17. Marlowe Johnson is spinning quite a few myths about Canada.

    First, the Conservatives and NDP won their ridings by a large margin - 45-50% even in Ontario. The only party that got seats because of vote splitting is the centrist Liberals.

    Second, Canadian support for environmental issues has always been a mile wide and an inch deep. The only people who support action are shameless hypocrites who think that someone else will have to pay for it (like the oil companies).

    Third, this is not just about oil. Consumers in Ontario are realizing that anti-CO2 measures come with a very large price tag. The provincial Conservatives have just annouced they will be dismantalling the feed in tariff program brought in by the Liberals.

    Lastly, the carbon tax in BC was brought in at the peak of the CO2 hysteria. Any party that tried to introduce it today would be laughed out of office.

  18. @JohnM
    Part of the problem, as Raven alludes to above, is that support for environmental policy tends to be broad but shallow. The devil of course is in the details. Home energy tax credits, ecorebates for efficient vehicles, etc. have always been more popular with the electorate than other policies that are demonstrably more effective (e.g. efficiency standards, carbon pricing). Perhaps when everybody is forced to take an economics/public policy 101 in high school this will change :).

    Public support for an industry-first strategy on climate change has much more support in Canada (and carbon pricing more generally) than it does in the U.S. The most recent polling data that I've seen referenced is here . What the data shows is:

    1. A greater % of Canadians believe in climate change (80% vs 58% in U.S.). Apparently not all are convinced (Raven for one)...

    2. Canadians believe government should play a significant role (89% vs 73%)

    3. Canadians are willing to pay more (~75% support a premium on renewable energy compared to 55% in the U.S.)

    4. Canadians are almost 3 times more likely (58%) to support C&T @ 15/tCO2e than Americans (18%)

    In light of #4, consider that the Conservative Party was the only federal party in Canada to oppose a Cap and Trade system in Canada. This is what I was getting at when I said that they are out of step with most Canadians on this issue.

    That the Conservatives were able to score points against the Liberals during the 2008 election by using deceptive negative attack ads (a practice that unfortunately has been imported from the U.S.) does not, IMO, mean that the public is against climate change policies such as revenue neutral carbon taxes. Rather I think the lesson that the other political parties took from the experience was that it was not an obvious vote winner and the risks (i.e. attack ads) outweighed the potential benefits.

    Hope this helps to clarify.


    Do you have any evidence to back up your claim? We can revisit this once the tallies are all official, but for now I see no reason to dispute the analysis described here which suggests that the Conservatives would have been 4 seats shy of a majority without any votesplitting on the left in key ridings.

    Agree in part with you on the broad and shallow bit wrt to public support for enviro policy (I would add though, that this I think is more a failure of education/messaging about specific policies than it is about core values though).

    Agree on CO2 'hysteria'? Not so much.