History was made in Canada’s federal election. Conservative gets majority government while New Democrat serves as Opposition for the first time. How will this alter federal policies on energy, environment, and climate change? Let’s examine the parties’ environmental platforms, their gains and losses, followed by how Canada’s federal policies may change.

Conservative (won 167 of 308 seats, gained 24 seats, forms majority government):

  • Made clear in 2006 that they had no intention of fulfil our Kyoto commitments of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 6% below 1990 levels during the period from 2008 to 2012
  • Stated in 2009 that Canada will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% from 2006 levels by 2020 and 60 to 70 per cent by 2050
  • Restated in 2010 that Canada will reduce emissions to 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020 (with no plans or details on how this may be achieved)

New Democrat (won 102 of 308 seats, gained 65 seats, forms official opposition):

  • Election platform proposed to implement a cap-and-trade system to place hard limits on emissions from industrial polluters, with the revenue from the system used to fund other environmental programs
  • Proposed Climate Change Accountability Act, which would commit Canada to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to a level 80% below that of 1990 by the year 2050, with interim targets to be established

Liberal (won 34 of 308 seats, lost 43 seats):

  • Proposed a long-term greenhouse gas reduction target of 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 (no details or interim targets provided)
  • Proposed to develop technologies that would eliminate the additional environmental impacts of oil sands over conventional oil, but did not propose to reduce or eliminate oil sands

Bloc Québécois (won 4 of 308 seats, lost 43 seats):

  • Election platform planned to establish absolute targets for the short term (6% below 1990 levels by 2012), middle term (25% to 40% below 1990 levels by 2020) and long term (80% below 1990 levels by 2050)
  • Recommended adopting 1990 as a reference year for the development of an independently run carbon exchange (cap-and-trade system) in Montreal by 2012

Green (won 1 of 308 seats, gained 1 seat):

  • Election platform proposed to use taxation policies to penalize polluters and reward the energy-thrifty while being neutral for the average taxpayer
  • Proposed to reduce emissions to 30% below 1990 levels by 2020, and to 85% below 1990 levels by 2040, “regardless of what other countries do”

Let’s examine how this may reshape Canada’s climate policies. On the surface, the election did not change much: Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who took office in 2006, will stay in power for another four years. But underneath the surface, a seismic shift has taken place, altering Canada’s climate change policy directions.

For the first time in 23 years, the Conservative will run a majority government. Harper had been running a minority government over the past five years, requiring him to form coalitions to get things done. Not any more. Bryan Walsh from Time magazine thinks that the oil and gas friendly Conservative will likely favour industry friendly policies at the expense of the progress towards a greener economy. “Like his ideological counterpart George W. Bush, Harper doesn’t seem to have much interest in dealing with climate change or energy, aside from the oil and gas that has helped Canada thrive recently. His position was in stark opposition to the opposition NDP, which offered more support for clean energy and—importantly—was ready to offer a carbon cap-and-trade program.” Carbon pricing is not likely to happen any time soon in Canada.

Jay Parmar, Principal Consultant at HRCarbon, thinks Canada will continue to fall behind in the ‘Sustainable Economy’ race. “In a highly intensive carbon based economy, Canada faces the risk of the world moving on towards a more sustainable and greener future without us at the table.”

But it is not all bad. Taking over Liberal in the role of Opposition is the NDP, who has proven to be a stronger green party on its own than the Liberals ever were. And for the first time in history the Green Party, who has the strongest environmental policies by far, has won their first seat in the parliament. This position will give the Green Party a distinctive opportunity to focus attention on the cause of climate action. George Hoberg, a professor of energy policy at the University of British Columbia, thinks this voice of commitment will need public support to “put pressure on Stephen Harper to deliver cost-effective policies that have a realistic prospect of achieving their near term target of a 17% reduction in greenhouse gases below 2005 levels by 2020.”

Mr. Harper’s actions on climate change and clean energy to date have been inadequate relative to the need and the opportunity, says Ed Whittingham, executive director of the Pembina Institute. To become a leader in the fast-growing clean energy economy, Canada must implement much stronger policies than the Conservative government has introduced so far or proposed in its campaign platform.

So it’s a setback with a green lining. As a final note, Walsh thinks that while Harper’s Conservatives may have a majority in Parliament, they won less than 40% of the vote by number, which means that public opinion on climate and the environment may be significantly more divided than the results suggest. What is your view on Canada’s climate change policies? What direction do you think Canada should take? Share your views below.