Canada has been a laggard on climate change for much of the last 20 years. Its reputation is rock bottom among both NGOs and its partner countries

Eugene Lang’s article represents well the framing of political life in Ottawa by a long-term insider. As such, it is perhaps unsurprising that he misses recent and novel developments that are increasingly taking centre stage in Canadian political life.

Climate change is one such development, arguably the key one. While the Harper government has largely ducked the issue, that will not be an option for the new government, no matter the outcome in October. Climate politics and policy are likely to radically change in the near term, driven by international concerns and events, federal-provincial relations and changing energy politics. This layered politics of climate change, combined with widely varying positions of parties contending for office, will produce very different dilemmas and dynamics from the ones suggested by Lang.

Perhaps Lang can be forgiven for completely missing climate change in his article because the bureaucrats upon whom he seems to be focused in his analysis have been largely forbidden from speaking about it, at least in public. His omission does accurately reflect the low status of climate change at the kickoff of the election campaign. But to say that this absence signals its irrelevance for the victorious party would be a gross misreading of the political horizon. Indeed, climate change featured prominently in the first leaders’ debate, which even more starkly highlighted the significance of Lang’s omission.

Lang refers to the (probably apocryphal) Harold Macmillan quote “Events, dear boy, events,” supposedly in response to a question about what he feared most in political life. One immediate such event that the next Canadian government must face is the 21st Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris in December. Just six weeks after the election, the new government will have to turn up to what is widely regarded as the most important UN climate conference in years, where agreement on a new climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol is expected. Unfortunately, Canada has been a laggard on climate change for much of the last 20 years. Its reputation is rock bottom among both NGOs and its partner countries.

The new government, whatever its stripes, will face a situation in Paris where it is widely seen as having long held up negotiations, generally not taken climate change seriously and produced the least ambitious climate plan of any industrialized country (save perhaps Australia). This obstructionist strategy, however, has become increasingly difficult to sustain even in the clubs like the G7 and G20 that the current government prefers over the UN and big international treaty commitments. While Canada (along with Japan) managed to water down the recent G7 commitment to decarbonization by extending the time horizon to the end of the century, it could not avoid endorsing the principle nor escape criticism in the leadup to the summit from Germany’s ambassador to Canada over bitumen extraction in Alberta.

For a renewed Conservative government, isolation and criticism at the Paris conference will be familiar, but the tenability of maintaining a recalcitrant stance is questionable at best. The Conservatives have been able to present slightly more ambitious cuts to Canadian greenhouse gas emissions in their target proposed to the UN earlier this year (in their intended nationally determined contribution, or INDC), for reasons we indicate below, but not enough either to enhance the Canadian reputation internationally or to cause them to stray from their overall approach to the issue.

If, however, the NDP or the Liberals, individually or in some form of coalition, come to office, they will face a significant short-term dilemma. Both have made a considerable amount of noise about the need to improve the Canadian reputation abroad: action on climate change is central to restoring this reputation. But they will arrive in Paris needing to chart a delicate course between promising more than the Conservatives have and promising more than they can plausibly deliver. Canada has promised but failed to deliver on climate change with a monotonous regularity, from the missed emissions stabilization target established in the early 1990s, to failing to implement any measures to meet its Kyoto obligations and then ultimately withdrawing, to posting laughably weak targets in the Copenhagen process in 2009-10. If a new government arrives in Paris with a target comparable to many other countries’, most of them will take that target with a well-deserved grain of salt, even if there is a generous disposition toward a new government trying to turn Canadian climate policy around.

Beyond the Paris negotiations, repairing Canada-US relations will be a priority. Successive US ambassadors to Canada have not been shy to suggest that Canada develop a more active climate policy or to link those concerns to pipeline development, two sore points among a growing list of differences. A Liberal or NDP government will undoubtedly want to launch a review of foreign policy where rethinking climate change, energy relations and the Canada-US relationship more broadly will loom large. Adding urgency to this need, US power plant regulations took another major stepforward in August, marking a major shift in US energy policy. Given that the United States is a major importer of both oil and electricity from Canada, these developments will require a strategic policy response and have the potential for significant economic impact. The US has threatened border tax adjustments against countries without adequate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions regulations in past pieces of climate legislation, and it is plausible these could become part of the agenda in the future, further threatening Canadian economic interests. The pressure on Canada to harmonize climate policy or at least develop a more ambitious one will surely grow. If there’s one constant in Canada’s national climate policy, it’s that it not stray too far from that of the United States.

As always in Canadian politics, energy policy will loom large. Here we must expect any new government to have to adapt to new circumstances. Even the current government has started to back away from “energy superpower” rhetoric, especially with the decline in oil prices, the softening investment in the sector and the subsequent weakening of the economic case for pipelines. Note that none of these trends depended on mass civil society mobilization, ideological or local opposition to Keystone XL in the United States or climate being central to any party’s election platform: they are simply the result of “events.” They also present significant opportunities. Unfortunately, some have been missed, owing, arguably, to the trajectory of Canada’s energy policy and subsequent poor positioning of the Canadian economy to take advantage of developments such as the rapid expansion in solar and wind investments globally. Fortunately, Canada’s natural endowments and provincial energy policies that have driven some innovation mean significant opportunities remain to take advantage of the rapidly changing global energy landscape.

Complicating matters further, the ability of future federal governments to deliver on ambitious promises on climate change or navigate energy challenges depends on how it manages its relationship to the provinces. Provincial action on climate change over the last 5 to 10 years is increasingly shaping the context for pursuing federal climate policy. The provinces hold most of the significant policy levers determining GHG emissions: electricity, transport, urban planning and building regulations.

British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and, to some extent, Alberta have already taken significant action. British Columbia established a carbon tax in 2009, which many commentators regard as having noticeably driven down GHG emissions. Quebec introduced a cap-and-trade system for managing GHG emissions, jointly with California, in 2013. Quebec also has a long-standing set of support mechanisms for wind energy. In Ontario the government shut down coal-fired power plants with similar effect, and introduced a feed-in tariff, which has stimulated significant investment in wind and solar. More recently it decided to join Quebec and California’s cap-and-trade system. In Alberta, the province’s carbon offset system, in place since 2007, has mostly resulted in significant amounts of money being put into funds for investing in technologies to limit emissions in the tar/oil sands. The emissions intensity of oil sands operations has declined significantly in the last decade, although they remain the most emissions-intensive way of producing oil anywhere in the world.

The momentum of provincial action on climate change (including the recently concluded Canadian Energy Strategy negotiated by the provinces without federal participation) is something that a new government will have to navigate, even if the gap between provincial and federal goals and policies narrows. It’s one thing to avoid a national climate policy; quite another to vacate leadership on energy policy, at least when it comes to trade, foreign investment and interprovincial or cross-border transport. A more proactive federal government on these issues might, for example, enable provinces to better promote production in new energy industries such as solar, avoiding the trade problems the Ontario government experienced with its feed-in tariff rules. On these interlinked issues, there is a vast gulf between the parties, and the election will reverberate through international relations, national policy and provincial politics.

The Conservatives have already been able to take advantage of provincial action to present a surprisingly ambitious plan to the UN. If they are reelected, expect to see two dynamics emerge. First, the Conservatives will likely continue shifting away from openly digging in their heels in international forums, toward opportunistically taking advantage of provincial action to present a better face internationally without having to engage in policy change. Second, the provinces will likely increase pressure on a Conservative federal government to step up to the plate. This pressure might be most notable on questions of carbon pricing, where the systems established in Quebec, British Columbia and most recently Ontario (and even, perhaps, the very weak carbon pricing system in Alberta) would benefit significantly from Canada-wide coordination. But such pressure also could arise through processes such as the Canadian Energy Strategy, which will be increasingly hard for the Canadian government to ignore.

If the Liberals or the NDP form a new government, provincial actions will also significantly shape and constrain any increased ambition in federal climate policy. Both parties have made statements acknowledging this context. The NDP argues that the federal government should play a significant role in climate policy, notably with a national cap-and-trade system. By contrast, earlier this year Justin Trudeau stated that he thought it best to leave most of climate policy to the provinces, although recent signals from the Liberals suggest a shift toward accepting the need for more federal-level action. But either party coming into office will have to develop its climate policy plan within the context of an existing patchwork of inconsistent, perhaps even incompatible rules and practices across the country. Any federal carbon pricing policy, for example, will be introduced in the context of three existing, very different carbon pricing systems as well as a number of provinces with no system in place.

Under the Liberals or the NDP, therefore, climate change would likely be a significant driver of renewed conversations about the character of Canadian federalism. For many defenders of provincial autonomy, the noises coming from the NDP stir up echoes of older debates about federal encroachment on provincial turf. In this respect, the rapid reappearance of references to the National Energy Program plays well for the Conservatives and makes their lack of interest in the premiers’ deal on energy appear studied. The negotiation of this dynamic will thus be a delicate balancing act for any new government wanting to increase Canadian ambition on climate change, making climate policy central to how federalism, a core issue in Canadian politics, evolves for the foreseeable future.

In thinking about the changing policy agenda after the election that Lang asks us to consider, we ignore climate change at our peril. Its politics will have a major impact on at least three central policy challenges that will face any new government: our international reputation and relationships, especially vis-à-vis the United States; federal-provincial dynamics; and shifts in our current dependence on fossil fuel extraction as a central economic driver. Each party views and frames these as different sets of opportunities and challenges, but each will nevertheless be forced to adapt and react to climate change regardless of its initial preferences. Climate change will be a significant force in shaping the new national policy order.

Graeme Auld is an associate professor at Carleton University in the School of Public Policy and Administration, with a cross-appointment in the Institute of Political Economy. He is a research fellow with the Carleton Centre for Community Innovation and a faculty associate at the Governance, Environment, and Markets Initiativeat Yale University.

Steven Bernstein is associate chair and graduate director, Department of Political Science, and co-director of the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

Matthew J. Hoffmann is a professor in the Department of Political Science and co-director of the Environmental Governance Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto.

Matthew Paterson is a professor in the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa. His work focuses on the intersection of global political economy and global environmental politics.