Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Canadian Leaders Debate: We Cannot have a Strong Economy without a Healthy Environment

The Globe and Mail debate between the leaders of Canada's three major parties was about the economy and for many Canadians it is becoming increasingly obvious that climate is a serious economic concern. This view is born out in a slew of reports that illustrate the benefits of acting on climate change versus inaction.

Even if we ignore the costs related to climate and the environment, the ruling Conservatives have a questionable economic record. During the debate prime minister Stephen Harper made the understatement of the year when he repeatedly acknowledged that economic growth hasn’t been strong under his watch.

In his defense Harper said that Canada has weathered the international economic storms better than anyone else in the developed world. However, he cannot take credit for the fact that Canada fared better than other nations during the economic crisis, as this is primarily due to Canada's banking system which was put in place well before the Conservatives came to power.

Some have suggested that over the last ten years the Conservatives have one of the worst economic records in Canada's post war history. To lend credence to the point the OECD recently cut Canada's growth forecasts.

Despite the Conservative's spin, there is no denying that Canada is now in recession. Nowhere are the economic impacts of Canada's downturn being felt more acutely than in fossil fuel rich Alberta where unemployment numbers have been rising for nine consecutive months and the provincial deficit is forecast to be $6.5 billion. Even natural gas exports to the United States have fallen sharply. Between 2007 and 2014 gas exports to the US east coast have fallen by 65 percent between 2007 and 2014, and efforts to expand markets to Asia have stalled.

The debate revealed that none of the federal leadership candidates have a clear plan to reduce emissions and begin moving away from fossil fuels.

As reported by the Suzuki Foundation, here is where the leaders stood on carbon emissions, climate change, green infrastructure, transportation, clean technology and a healthy environment.

Carbon Emissions

Mr. Harper has long promised new emissions regulations for the oil and gas sector but failed to deliver, making it harder for Canada to meet its international commitments to reduce carbon. Critics also say the Harper government has weakened the Navigable Waters Protection Act and Canada’s environmental assessment process.

Mr. Mulcair said he supported a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions but declined to provide specifics on what it might cost. Mr. Trudeau rejected the idea of imposing new costs on provinces that already have systems to curb emissions growth. Mr. Harper has said he favours a sector-by-sector approach to regulating greenhouse gases.

Climate change

How are the leaders responding to the most pressing issue of our generation, climate change? Leaders differentiated themselves in their approaches on how to reduce greenhouse gases. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair said his party supports a national cap-and-trade approach as the only way to guarantee GHG reductions. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau would work with the provinces as they prepare commitments for the December climate summit in Paris but would avoid a national strategy and direction. And Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said he would continue with the sector-by-sector regulatory approach, which he said had decreased Canada's emissions while growing the economy. While pipelines were mentioned, oil sands weren't a big focus of discussion and we heard little about how leaders would deal with fossil fuel subsidies.

Infrastructure and transit funding

Infrastructure deficits to municipalities were acknowledged as an important issue, yet green infrastructure didn't get mentioned much. Various commitments were made for infrastructure support but it remains to be seen whether municipalities believe it will be enough to fill the gap. All leaders acknowledged that municipalities need transit funding but whether their commitments would be enough to move cities forward is unclear. What we know is that every dollar invested in public transit brings $3 worth of economic growth.

Clean technology

In a debate like this, clean technology should be a major point of discussion. As the fastest-growing sector in Canada, it can't be ignored, yet we didn't hear details about a renewable path with solar, wind and hydro. In the month left in this campaign, leaders will have to tell Canadians how they plan to help a sector that generated nearly $12 billion for the national economy in 2013.

Healthy environment

For the second debate in a row, Mulcair talked about his work in Quebec to enact legislation for the right to a healthy environment. Most Canadians believe these rights should be enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, something more than 110 countries already enjoy.

Whether we are talking about jobs, infrastructure, energy, or transportation, Canadians must understand that a strong economy is inextricably linked to a healthy environment.

As explained by the Suzuki Foundation: "We have a choice and this election is a critical time to exercise it. Now is the time to embrace clean energy and green infrastructure, increase funding for transit and transportation solutions and bring nature into our communities. We can support leadership at the federal level to lower carbon emissions, create green jobs and grow clean technology businesses, the fastest-growing sector of our economy."

Click here for more information about where each party stands on climate issues.

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