Will the new Conservative leader miss the forest for the trees?

As people who work on climate policy for a living, the news that Conservative leader Erin O’Toole had been unseated brought to mind four unsettling words: Here we go again.

While it’s true that, had they won September’s election, the Conservatives under O’Toole would have taken Canada’s climate efforts backward, but his party’s climate platform also took the party forward from Andrew Scheer’s smoke-and-mirrors offering.

O’Toole’s Conservatives introduced a serious, if lukewarm, plan to meet Canada’s previous target of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 30 per cent. Critically, their proposal also kept in place a version of carbon pricing. 

But with 62 per cent of party MPs voting for O’Toole’s removal, it would seem this concession was too much for some. His support of a “de facto carbon tax” was the first transgression listed by Calgary MP Bob Benzen in a letter urging a caucus review of O’Toole’s leadership.

When one looks at likely replacements — from Pierre Poilievre and Leslyn Lewis to new and old premiers like Alberta’s Jason Kenney and Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall — it’s a veritable roster of on-the-record opponents of Canada’s most critical climate policy: carbon pricing. 

A possible exception would be Michael Chong, a dark-horse candidate readers might recall from his leadership bid five years ago, when he made the fiscally conservative case for carbon pricing. (It was also centre-right premier Gordon Campbell who introduced North America’s first carbon tax in B.C.)

If a new Conservative leader restarts Scheer’s war on carbon pricing, the Conservatives will be repeating the mistake they made three years ago: missing the forest for the trees.

If you’re fighting carbon pricing, you’re fighting climate action. 

And that’s how you’ll be seen in the next election: the anti-climate party whose delegates refused to acknowledge this time last year that “climate change is real.”

It’s 2022. There’s simply no realistic scenario in which Canada scraps its carbon-pricing system and still reaches its 2030 climate target — or even its old target.

O’Toole learned this lesson last year when his party modelled its alternative climate plan. Its own reality check compelled it to keep carbon pricing in place.

Will the new Conservative leader be concerned with reality checks? That remains to be seen, but here are a few worth keeping in mind.

In a January poll conducted by Abacus Data for Clean Energy Canada, 62 per cent of right-wing Canadians said the federal government should continue or increase efforts to shift Canada toward a cleaner economy; 88 per cent of centrists agree. 

And in every province but Alberta, most Canadians now say that the clean-energy sector is more important to the economy than oil and gas. Ask them which sector will be important to our economy in 10 years, and twice as many Canadians (59 per cent) would say the clean-energy sector will be “very important,” while only 28 per cent would say oil and gas. When the same question was asked 14 months ago, just 40 per cent picked the clean-energy sector.

Perceptions are changing fast because economic realities are changing faster.

To date, 136 nations — including Canada — have committed to net-zero targets. Our trading relationships depend not only on our participation, but on our leadership. Even the International Energy Agency finds that exporting oil is no longer a viable, long-term economic strategy in a net-zero world.

Canada’s clean-energy sector will employ 640,000 Canadians by 2030 if we keep our climate policies in place. Our vast country is home to: some of the best renewable resources around, one of the cleanest electricity grids in the world, and an enviable clean-tech industry. Meanwhile, a study published in Nature last week concluded that the mining industry would be a “net beneficiary of a global tax on carbon emissions,” as an accelerated energy transition drives demand for metals and minerals.

If a new Conservative leader takes aim at climate action, make no mistake: It will be political, it will be ideological, and it will risk leaving Canada economically adrift.

Unless, of course, the party can peel its gaze from its right flank and remember whom it wishes to lead: a diverse and changing array of Canadians who live and work in an equally diverse and changing economy.

This post was co-authored by Mark Zacharias and originally appeared in iPolitics.

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