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Canada’s Climate Change Election Failed to Tackle Fossil Industry Dominance, Energy System Transformation

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While Canada has just concluded the first election in its history that focused in large part on climate change, the campaign still failed to produce a conversation about a future free of fossil fuels, reflecting the extent to which “oil is part and parcel of our political, economic, and cultural framework,” Corporate Mapping Project researcher Angela Carter told National Observer in a recent interview.

Even if the election narrative took the country into “unprecedented, historic territory,” the country’s climate conversation has still “failed to envision a Canada without a fossilized-energy future,” Observer adds [1]. Much of the debate was on “how to decrease emissions of the oil and gas industry (the biggest polluters in the country), as well as decreasing emissions across the board, without considering seriously changing the foundation of Canada’s oil-dependent economy,” pointing to the “underlying assumption” that fossil development can continue to be the country’s status quo.

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“In this country, we’ve got our heads in the oilsands,” said Carter, an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. “I feel like in Canada, we’re not able to have what young Greta (Thunberg) from Sweden would say is the ‘adult conversation’.”

The factors weighing against that conversation aren’t new, after a half-century of government subsidies, tax subsidies, and royalty breaks aimed at bolstering the fossil industry. “It’s been fostered by governments and by industry to try to convince Canadian voters there’s only one option here,” she said. “It’s fossil fuels forward only. There are no new development ideas.”

While countries and investors around the world move toward a fossil fuel phaseout and embraced renewable energy, Carter added, Canada has failed to have that conversation. “If we had the same level of attention and support for the renewable sector, building retrofits, electrified public transit, we could do a lot more than we think we can right now,” she told Observer.

Dr. Gail Krantzberg, professor of engineering and public policy at Hamilton’s McMaster University, also pointed to a policy gap, driven by the Paris Agreement, that has countries focusing almost entirely on emission reductions, rather than a wider menu of climate solutions. “We’ve also seen IPCC reports come out since then that talk about land, that talk about oceans, that talk about adaptation” to climate impacts, she told Observer. “So why is that not entering our conversation?”

Ryan Katz-Rosene, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s School of Political Studies, said the election conversation on climate had missed the “two revolutions” that will result if Canada tries to electrify everything from the entire power grid to transportation. The first will be to decarbonize and modernize the grid itself. The second, he said, will be to shift consumer habits to make electrified transport affordable for Canadian households.

“I think that’s one thing that we’re not seeing a lot of nuance about,” he said. “They don’t talk about how much harder it’s going to be in 2030 or 2050 without these changes.”

University of Ottawa associate professor Nicholas Rivers, Canada research chair in climate and energy policy, agreed the grid transformation only received superficial attention during the campaign. “There’s a lot of exciting technological developments that leave reason for optimism, but we’re not talking about them in detail here.”

McGill University biology professor Catherine Potvin, Canada research chair in climate change mitigation, added that none of the election debate got into detail on carbon budgets. “No party platform tells me what happens—how their climate promises decrease emissions and by how much,” she said. “Nobody tells me how a credit for innovation will allow me to build this many net-zero houses, or so forth. This kind of thing doesn’t exist in Canada because we don’t have the data to make these calculations.”

Carter said the Liberals and Conservatives both put forward campaign platforms that would entail “keeping us locked in that kind of past-energy world”, rather than tackling the fossil industry and its influence. Krantzberg agreed, adding that Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s plan for a national energy corridor simply didn’t make sense. While details were limited, the platform proposal “sounds like you’re shipping energy around the place,” or “a pipeline taking oil from one part of the country to another part of the country,” at a time when experts are putting much more emphasis on distributed energy options.

“So solar, geothermal wind—whenever that is feasible—would be set into a local, decentralized place,” she explained. “In other words, the whole notion of putting a bunch of power conveyances in long distances means that you’re feeding into a system that is inefficient. You lose the energy as it gets into the grid.” Which will no longer be necessary or cost effective, at a time when “things are changing more rapidly than we imagined.”

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