The insincere sincerity of climate policy in the 2021 election

I’ve been reflecting on Marc Jaccard’s “Assessing climate sincerity in the Canadian 2021 election,” trying sincerely to see if I could make sense of his analysis of the climate policy proposals of each of the federal parties. The measure of success of the climate proposals isn’t really based on the outcome of the modelling software Jaccard uses. The metric is sincerity – the degree to which a party offers a policy prescription that is free from hypocrisy, deceit or pretence. .

 

Jaccard measures sincerity according to whether a party has developed policies that will achieve their targets and whether parties are being honest about costs. So far, so good. But another element of sincerity is missing from his account. A party or government can develop excellent policy proposals but fail to follow through on them.

Indeed, follow-through seems to be the biggest problem in Canadian federal politics. Each election cycle parties suddenly come alive, proposing to give money to anything and everything, while the party in power announces new programs it could have – or should have – been implementing all along.

Lessons can be drawn from what a party has done in the past on an issue – especially so when the party in question is the governing party. By this measure, the Liberal government’s past climate proposals have been insincere in the extreme, although the same can be said about every Canadian government, including the Conservatives, since the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. To date, Canada is nowhere close to reaching its climate goals. Other countries have begun to flatten the curve of greenhouse gas emissions. We haven’t. The policies announced by the Conservatives, Liberals, and People’s Party of Canada are not going to make a significant impact on emissions levels. They’re too timid; they’re techno-utopian in the extreme (e.g., carbon capture currently deals with only one-tenth of one per cent of global emissions); and they tiptoe around the carbon elephant in the room, failing to confront the emissions generated by the Canadian oil and gas industry.

There’s really a very simple goal we’re all trying to reach on climate: a 100-per-cent reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Doing this sooner is obviously better than doing it later. What parties and governments need to explain in their climate policies is why this doesn’t happen sooner rather than later. Moving to net zero tomorrow is, of course, impossible and no political party has proposed to accomplish this. Too much of our built infrastructure and current lifestyle is based on high emissions, so turning on a dime would create major economic and social dislocations. Still, the slower we move, the more carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere. This CO2 won’t disappear in 2050 – the magical date set by so many governments to resolve our climate problems. Net zero means no more additional atmospheric CO2, not no CO2 at all – an issue that governments have not been sincere in explaining to their electorates.

For Jaccard, the measure of what is possible or impossible in GHG reductions has little to do with worries about planetary temperatures, or measures of total carbon dioxide accumulation, or the trauma imposed by climate change on the health of individuals and communities. The most important measure is GDP growth, with all the limits and blind spots that accompany this. He reads sincerity as a party’s identification of financial costs. He doesn’t pay much attention to the other costs that will result from continued high levels of GHG production. It’s why his modelling misses the point of what the policies of the NDP and the Green Party (which I am representing in the 2021 election) aim to achieve.

A recent report by the insurance giant Swiss Re argues that if nothing is done to mitigate GHG production, global GDP will plummet by 18 per cent by 2050. If Paris Agreement targets are met, the report estimates global GDP will still decrease 4 per cent in that time frame. That is close to the drop in global GDP occasioned by the 2007-09 recession. So, when parties in Canada say their climate policies will meet their Paris Agreement obligations, that still means we’re in for bad economic times. Jaccard might believe in their policies’ capacity to mitigate economic impacts in the short term, but in the longer term, we might be in trouble even if they are sincere about turning their climate policies into actual climate action.

Jaccard’s op-ed is already being used by federal parties as proof of the veracity of their policy prescriptions – indeed, Justin Trudeau mentioned it (if indirectly) during the English-language leaders’ debate. But this is insincere. We are one of the world’s highest per-capita emitters. Canada’s peers, including the EU, the U.K. and even the U.S., are proposing higher reduction goals than we are. It’s time for Canada to not only follow through on its climate policy proposals, but to create proposals that show we truly understand the implications of climate change and what we need to do to help mitigate it – and fast.

 

This article first appeared on Policy Options and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

IMRE SZEMAN
Imre Szeman is university research chair of environmental communication at the University of Waterloo. He is author (most recently) of On Petrocultures: Globalization, Culture, and Energy (2019). He is also a Green Party candidate in the 2021 federal election.

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