Analysis | The Liberal Climate Plan Is New Denialist Trash

Sep 16, 2021

Analysis | The Liberal Climate Plan Is New Denialist Trash

Nothing in the Liberal platform clearly and directly mandates reductions in oil and gas production and consumption at any point in the future. Ever.

Climate change is here, and action is urgently needed to reduce emissions.

This election, through the well-timed publication of a couple articles, the Liberals have claimed they have the best climate plan, or at least a highly credible one. Those who scored the Liberal plan highly appear to have a very specific understanding of the situation that leads them to first believe the Liberals’ market-based, industry-friendly policies will sufficiently reduce emissions, and second that the Liberals will follow through.

But there is another way to analyze the Liberal plan. We can look at the party’s past actions of protecting and supporting the oil and gas industry while delaying transformative action, and ask whether their plan marks a continuation of that approach, or not. This approach, which has been followed by provincial NDP governments and other governments around the world, has been identified by scholars and activists as “new climate denialism” or “climate delayism,” and is the subject of several books including The Big Stall and Regime of Obstruction, which I recently reviewed together.

This article will examine the Liberal climate platform with that analysis in mind, and then we will turn our attention to the glowing endorsements it has received.


Specifics of the Liberal Climate Plan

Much has been made of the Liberal’s climate targets of a 40 to 45 per cent emissions reduction by 2030. But it costs nothing to declare targets, nothing to miss them, and there will be at least two more elections before the 2030 target. Emissions have gone up while the Liberals have been in office, but as long as 2030 is the target, they can keep telling us they are on track, even as emissions go up. This allows for continued inaction and delay.

The Liberal’s methane emissions reduction target is sooner, at 2025, which will be around or after the next election. This target was announced in 2016, regulations were supposed to begin being implemented in 2018, were delayed until 2020, and won't be fully in place until 2023 at the earliest. A 2020 analysis by the Pembina Institute and Environmental Defence predicted the 2025 target would be missed, only achieving a 29 per cent cut, not the promised 40 to 45 per cent.

During this campaign, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals have repeated a promise to put a cap on oil and gas industry emissions. There are unstated targets for 2025 and 2030, to be developed after the election, but no firm targets in the platform until 2050, when the industry is to be "net zero." This of course suits industry fine in the short term, as it puts no restrictions on oil and gas production. And in the long term, there are two crucial problems.

First, net zero allows for emissions as long they are supposedly offset by a dubious suite of mechanisms. This includes emissions trading, which can take imperialist forms like displacing Indigenous peoples overseas from their lands to make room for fast-growing tree monocrops which may not actually sequester emissions long-term. It also can look like technical tricks, like pumping greenhouse gases underground, which may not stay buried, and which can disrupt lands and waters in the process.

Second, net zero for oil and gas, at least the way the Liberals talk about it, does not apply to "scope 3" emissions. That is significant because scope 3 includes emissions from the final use of the oil and gas, meaning burning things like gasoline, propane, jet fuel, making plastics, and so on. Scope 3 emissions are 90 to 95 per cent of the emissions of the lifecycle of these products. So the Liberals' are only talking about 5 to 10 per cent of the oil and gas industry's ultimate emissions.

Nothing in the Liberal platform clearly and directly mandates reductions in oil and gas production and consumption at any point in the future. Ever.

At first glance, it may seem like the proposal "to achieve a 100% net-zero emitting electricity system by 2035" would cut oil and gas production, but not necessarily. This goal sounds impressive until we realize Canada's electricity grid is already 82% from "non-GHG emitting sources," according to the government. And there are three things to keep in mind about oil and gas in relation to this goal. 

First, much of the oil and gas produced in Canada is already exported, and that is likely to continue. Electricity grid changes won't affect that. Second, with "net zero," fossil fuel combustion for electricity could continue if accompanied by both the imperialist carbon offsets as well as carbon capture schemes. The offsets in particular can make it harder for nations in the Global South to meet their emissions reductions targets, as they are economically coerced to help the wealthy, imperial core countries reach their goals and look good. Third, even if emissions from electricity generation are reduced, this does not necessarily mean there will be reductions in fossil fuel use from transportation, heating, cooling, cooking, manufacturing, and other activities. Fossil fuel consumption could still increase dramatically in the Liberal plan, if people want.

The electric vehicle announcements likewise sound like they may reduce emissions, but they may not. The big commitments are for 50% of sales of light duty vehicles (ie. cars, SUVs, many pick-up trucks) to be "zero emission vehicles" in 2030, and "100% of medium- and heavy-duty vehicles sales to be zero emission by 2040, where feasible." This allows sales of combustion vehicles to continue and grow for many years, and for those cars to remain on the roads for much longer. Even after 2030, sales of combustion-engine cars could remain high if there are also equivalently high sales of electric vehicles. And the 2040 target for larger vehicles, with its escape clause of “where feasible,” is so far enough off it hardly requires action now. Also noteworthy is the misleading designation of electric vehicles as "zero emission vehicles." A lot of energy is required to build these vehicles, including for steel and batteries. In fact, over the lifecycle of an electric vehicle, they may produce around 30% to 70% the emissions as a combustion-engine vehicle, depending on energy sources for manufacturing and charging. Electric vehicles can create more emissions in manufacturing than combustion-engine cars (but usually far less emissions from driving). These are far from zero emission vehicles, at least how they are built today. And Teslas are reportedly difficult and costly to repair, sometimes being scrapped after relatively minor crashes. 

What is noteworthy regarding transportation in the Liberal plan is that there is no plan to ultimately reduce car use, and it sells a false vision of a zero emission, heavily car-dependent future. Not to mention the human rights violations and destabilization of governments that has accompanied mining around the world for materials for electric vehicles.

Another firm-sounding cap is the Liberals' platform to end thermal coal exports by 2030. Again, that is several elections away, and requires no immediate action. Coal can also likely continue to be burned in some specific instances in Canada beyond 2030, like New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and a facility in Saskatchewan. And in the meantime, metallurgical coal, which is used for industrial purposes like making steel, is still burned in Canada – in Hamilton, for instance – though there are plans to replace it with natural gas, which suits the natural gas industry fine.

Yet another platform promise from the Liberals is to phase out subsidies for the fossil fuel industry by 2023. Canadian governments have been promising to end these subsidies since 2009. It is therefore already hard to trust this commitment, and it is rendered even more dubious by the Liberals’ slippery definition of what exactly constitutes a subsidy. In a recent interview with the National Observer, Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said he does not consider all transfers of government money to given to companies in the industry to be fossil fuel subsidies. He does not see giving money to them to slightly reduce their emissions from producing oil and gas to be a subsidy. He does not see giving them billions in a wage subsidy to be a subsidy. And he doesn't think it's a subsidy when his government pays to clean up old abandoned "orphan" oil and gas wells that companies should have paid to clean up but routinely don't. It makes it hard to know what the Liberals mean when they say "eliminate fossil fuel subsidies."

Not challenging the Fossil Fuel Industry

There is more that could be said about the Liberal's climate plan, including about new funding for various programs and projects, some of which could be good, and some of which will likely be handouts to companies and wealthy individuals (like the building retrofit grants for homeowners). What should be clear, however, is that the plan does nothing to challenge the fossil fuel industry in the short term, and the larger changes in the more distant future sound much bigger than they necessarily are.

The fossil fuel industry has been a main impediment to climate action globally and in Canada. Any plan that does not confront the industry will only perpetuate it as a force exerting its power and influence on all aspects of society, including media, universities, sports, pop culture, advertising, electoral politics, and more. The Liberal plan does not confront this power directly, and none of the platforms take this threat to the climate as seriously as it needs to be taken.

As The Maple, a new independent publication, reported, "Kai Nagata with Dogwood B.C. told The Maple that he has heard very little pushback against the Liberals’ platform from the oil and gas industry — and said that fact speaks volumes. 'Any credible climate plan in 2021 should have oil executives swinging from the rafters hooting like howler monkeys,' said Nagata. 'We've seen nothing, no dark money campaigns to unseat the incumbents, no fear mongering emails from the oil lobby.'”

As has been written about elsewhere, like in this excerpt from The Trudeau Formula, the Liberals act to give the appearance of climate action while really protecting the interests of the oil and gas sector. We can see this continuing in the 2021 Liberal climate plan, and we didn’t even need to discuss how they bought a pipeline.


Why Has Canadian Media Praised the Liberal Climate Plan?

The Canadian media’s treatment of the Liberal climate plan as credible largely hinges on one opaque report by economist Mark Jaccard, as well as a handful of other articles.

After the election was called August 15th, 2021, the parties scrambled to put platforms together. Climate was sometimes a talking point, as when the NDP called out Trudeau's climate hypocrisy. Towards the end of the month, climate platforms were released, with the Liberal and Conservative plans costed (meaning with budget figures) and the Green and NDP not.

Then the media storm started. On September 1st, a glowing appraisal of the Liberals' climate plan was published in the National Observer, written by Merran Smith and Sarah Petrevan, executive director and policy director, respectively, of Clean Energy Canada, a program at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue. Of note, Merran Smith has recently openly advocated for the Liberals on Twitter. 

Image: Twitter, screencapped August 15, 2021

Image: Twitter, screencapped August 15, 2021

The most consequential endorsement for the Liberals' plan came two days later from Mark Jaccard, an economics professor and director of the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University. Writing in Policy Options, the article was titled Assessing climate sincerity in the Canadian 2021 election, and Jaccard said he was assessing "the GHG targets, policies and costs of the climate promises" of the parties. There have been several responses to his findings and priorities, including Seth Klein’s response in the National Observer, Imre Szeman’s response in Policy Options, and Brendan Haley’s response on Twitter.

What has not yet been examined is the modelling system Jaccard used, its assumptions, and its uncertainties. He mentions using a modelling system called gTech, by Navius Research. Notably, the assumptions in the gTech model are not mentioned on the Navius site, and Navius has not responded to a request for comment from the Media Co-op

One eye-catching calculation Navius made in another Navius report was that negative emissions from land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) would grow to 80 MtCO2e. But according to the government of Canada, LULUCF emissions weren’t negative in 2019, they were positive 9.9 MtCO2e. Major changes will be needed to get to negative 80 Mt. If Jaccard used the negative 80 Mt figure, and total reductions to 2030 need to be about 300 Mt, that’s already 27% of the way there.  

If Jaccard used that figure or customized the model’s assumptions, he did not mention those specifically in his Policy Options article. Climate modelling, which tries to calculate the probability of future scenarios, is highly dependent on what assumptions are made in the many equations and calculations put into the model. For example, how much do changes in the price of gasoline affect how many cars are on the road and how much people drive? 

Jaccard claims, "Citizens should focus on the carbon prices and regulations in each party’s policy package because only these cause significant GHG reductions." As we’ve seen, the regulations in the Liberal’s climate plan give little confidence that emissions will go down by 2030, so we are left to assume that in Jaccard’s model, much of the emissions reduction is driven by the carbon price. For reference, the carbon price, or “carbon tax” is scheduled to gradually increase each year, and by 2030 will increase the price of gasoline by 38 cents a litre. If that seems to you like a surprisingly large impact from a relatively minor change, you are onto something – there is plenty of data to suggest that it may not play out that way. Recent studies looking at the actual effects of carbon pricing after-the-fact, not just at modelling, observed relatively minor effects. A recent paper compiling 37 studies found, "the majority of studies suggest that the aggregate reductions from carbon pricing on emissions are limited—generally between 0% and 2% per year." 

In addition to no information about assumptions, there are no confidence intervals (meaning probabilities) or margins of error disclosed in Jaccard’s analysis or the gTech website to indicate how certain the modelling was.

Much more could be written about Jaccard's less-than-2,000-word article, but the important point is, while providing readers with minimal information about his methodology, he gave "climate sincerity" scores to the parties; the Liberals got 8/10, Conservatives 5/10, NDP 4/10, Greens 2/10. And these stuck.

The day Jaccard's article was published, CBC published an article online titled,

Liberal climate plan likely least costly, most effective, says economist assessing main parties' proposals. This centred Jaccard's analysis, though it also included dissenting views later on.

From there, media picked up on and repeated Jaccard's analysis. And so did the Liberals. In the French and English language debates in early September, Trudeau mentioned unnamed climate “experts” as having said the Liberals had the best plan. Responding to criticism during the English-language from NDP leader Jagmeet Singh about six years of Liberal climate inaction, Trudeau said, "We need to talk about science, we need to talk about experts. We agree on that, you and I both. So how is it that the experts who have rated our plan on climate to be an A, have rated your plan an F?" 

Green leader Annamie Paul asks "Who are these experts? The expert?" before being drowned out by Singh.

Articles in Chatelaine, CBC, The Narwhal, The Toronto Star, and other publications have pointed to or repeated Jaccard's findings. This has continued onto radio, TV, and social media. Incredibly, this one modelling exercise has had a major impact on the climate conversation in the election.

This election campaign we have not seen a consistent focus on important pieces of the climate issue, like new denialist measures, how the parties will confront the power of the fossil fuel industry, and how they will implement a transition program that will rise to the challenge we face. Instead, we have been largely hemmed in by the findings of one neoliberal economist, and a pliant media. 

But we cannot be subdued and fooled by this misleading analysis. By looking out for the signs of delay and new denialism, we can see it everywhere in the Liberal climate plan. It is not a credible plan. It is trash, and we must fight for better. 

NOTE: As I finished writing, a new report was just published by international NGO Climate Action Tracker, calling Canada’s climate actions and policies “highly insufficient,” and stating Canada is not on track to meet its Paris targets. We’ll see if this has anywhere close to the effect Jaccard’s analysis had.

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