How Canada’s Election Will Decide the Fate of the World

If voters oust Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives, they'll be voting for a whole new climate policy — and potentially tipping the scales of December's Paris summit on global warming.


VANCOUVER, Canada — For years, Canada and Australia have been the climate villains the world has loved to hate. They’ve been the ones giggling in the corner at each year’s round of climate talks, trashing renewable energy, boasting about their reserves of coal and oil sands, and giving the diplomatic middle finger to serious emissions cuts. This summer a panel led by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan argued, “Australia and Canada appear to have withdrawn entirely from constructive international engagement on climate.” A story on the website Road to Paris by the journalist Leigh Phillips was even blunter: “They are what could be called the Bad Boys of climate change.”

But all that might be about to change.

On Oct. 19, Canadians will vote in one of the tightest elections in the country’s history. The Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, are polling so close with Justin Trudeau’s more progressive Liberals that it’s impossible to call who will come out ahead in Monday’s vote. The further-to-the-left New Democratic Party, led by Thomas Mulcair, is in a close third. “No disinterested source is predicting a majority for anyone,” former newspaper publisher Conrad Black wrote in the National Post last week. And though climate change has not loomed large in the election, if Harper’s Conservatives lose their ability to govern, the country would likely find itself with a profoundly different climate policy — and one that could potentially influence how world powers choose to negotiate and implement a post-2020 global climate change agreement at the COP21 summit in Paris this December.

To ensure their hold on power, the Conservatives need to win at least 170 seats in the House of Commons. Any less would mean a minority government. And in that scenario it’s likely the Liberals and the NDP would form a governing coalition.

Both opposition leaders promise to fix Canada’s reputation at the December climate talks in Paris. “It’s time we get clear targets, and we started respecting them,” Mulcair said in August. His rival seems to agree. “We will go to Paris united as a country in our desire to reduce our emissions,” Trudeau said last month. Trudeau has also promised to work with the provinces to put a market price on the country’s emissions, while Mulcair has called for a national system of cap and trade — all policies that economists think can shrink emissions while growing the economy.

Moreover, they’re both a far cry from Harper’s dismissal of efforts to reduce Canada’s carbon emissions as “job killing.”

If Canadian voters do decide to oust their climate change bad boy, they won’t be alone. Harper’s partner in crime, Australian climate skeptic Prime Minister Tony Abbott, was replaced last month by Malcolm Turnbull, who in 2010 warned “the consequences of unchecked global warming would be catastrophic.” He told an interviewer in May that “we should seek to restrain the growth of greenhouse gases.” In what direction he chooses to take the country on climate is still unclear, but at the very least he seems to have a more informed understanding of the issue than Abbott.

All of which is to say that there’s a decent chance that Canada will enter the climate negotiations in Paris prepared to play a more constructive role than at previous talks. And though it will be joined by an Australian leader still tied to the weak climate target set by his predecessor, many observers expect Turnbull to play a less combative role than Abbott. “My feeling is there’s been a bit of a sigh of relief from the international community, at least in climate circles,” said Erwin Jackson, deputy CEO of the Climate Institute, an Australia-based think tank.

So just how might these two countries — whose combined emissions represent less than 3 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions — tip the balance at Paris?

By no means will Australia and Canada be setting the agenda at this year’s big climate talks — that’s for major powers like the United States, China, and the European Union. But as fossil fuel-producing middle powers, Canada and Australia have a significant role to play, argues Jackson, who has over 20 years of experience working on climate policy. “It’s in the ideas space that they’re really important,” he said.

Many developing countries are convinced that the only way they can become affluent is by burning fossil fuels. Although India recently promised to get 40 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030, coal-fired power capacity is growing by 9.4 percent each year. And the country’s power minister, Piyush Goyal, claimed that “development imperatives cannot be sacrificed at the altar of potential climate changes many years in the future,” when asked in 2014 about India’s appetite for fossil fuels. Similarly, China has promised to cap its carbon emissions by 2030 while at the same time consuming more coal than the rest of the world combined.

But if Canada and Australia can prove to the world at Paris that they’re now willing and able to work with the global community to reduce their emissions to safe levels, while at the same time making coal and oil sands a less important contributor to their GDPs, Jackson argued, “that will give confidence to other resource-based economies in the developing world that they can do the same.”

The timing for such a scenario is perfect. They world is now adding more renewable energy capacity (143 gigawatts in 2013) than oil, coal, and gas combined (141 gigawatts the same year). Over half the world’s coal reserves aren’t profitable to extract at today’s prices, Moody’s Investors Service has estimated. And in 2014 the global economy grew while emissions stayed flat, the first time it has done so in 40 years, according to the International Energy Agency. The goal in Paris is to negotiate an international climate treaty capable of accelerating all this momentum. “[It’s about] sending a signal to investors that we’re all on one train and it’s heading in one direction,” Jackson said. “So you need to realign your investment decisions on that basis.”

Canada has not been sending that signal under Harper, who has been in power since 2006. The country may miss its 2020 climate target by 20 percent, a result primarily of increased oil and gas production, an Environment Canada report submitted to the U.N. this spring suggested. Canada’s fossil fuel-dominated energy sector is worth more to the national economy — it’s about 10 percent of GDP — than retail, construction, agriculture, and the public sector combined. A new government in Ottawa wouldn’t have much time to change the country’s course, but a sincere and dedicated effort to do so might communicate a powerful message to the international community.

That might be worth more than a casual observer might expect.

Canada and Australia’s carbon footprints may be relatively small, but their defiant refusal to participate constructively in the global climate talks carries large symbolic weight. Although hundreds of billions of dollars are now being invested in the low-carbon economy, there are still huge sections of the global population, particularly in economies dependent on fossil fuel extraction, that see climate action as an economic threat, rather than an opportunity to create massive growth in low-carbon energy sources and technology. “Harper and Abbott tapped into people’s very real fears of losing their jobs,” Phillips, who writes about European affairs and climate for outlets like Nature and the Guardian, said in an interview.

Those fears are an impediment to action, especially for efforts to negotiate a binding climate treaty among the world’s 196 nations. All it takes is a few loud dissenters to slow down the entire process. That’s the role performed by coal-dependent Poland within the European Union. Internationally, developing countries like India have made legitimate claims that their economic growth isn’t possible without burning fossil fuels. What incentive do they have to reduce their dependence on coal, gas, and oil if “bad boys” such as Canada and Australia refuse to do the same? “Those divisions are the big blocks toward achieving an international consensus,” said Phillips, whose forthcoming book on climate change, called Austerity Ecology & the Collapse-Porn Addicts, will be released later this month.

The world doesn’t have much time to overcome those blocks. Humans have warmed the planet by 0.8 degrees Celsius. Our species has pumped so much carbon into the atmosphere that even if we were to eliminate fossil fuels today, that number would keep climbing toward a 2-degree threshold. Beyond that, the future survival of people on Earth becomes uncertain, according to the vast majority of climate scientists. It’s the point where, climatologically speaking, all hell breaks loose. The international community is depending on countries like Canada to help prevent it. “That would be my hope,” Germany’s ambassador in Ottawa said recently, “that Canada after the election will be an important and somewhat ambitious part of the [climate negotiations] process.”

The process will be successful in Paris if it can signal to world leaders that future economic prosperity is no longer dependent on fossil fuels, Jackson argued. New administrations in Ottawa and Canberra would be in a good position to send the signal: that even economies heavily dependent on oil, coal, and gas can transition to a thriving low-carbon future. But such an outcome depends on which party Canadians choose to elect on Monday. And for the moment the election is far too close to call. It’s not out of the question that the “bad boys” will live to thumb their noses at another COP. The Paris negotiators would do their best to ignore them. But in Jackson’s opinion “the case for stronger and more ambitious action,” especially among developing economies, “becomes harder.” So Canadians aren’t just voting on a new government next week, they’re also choosing whether to save the planet.


 Twitter: @GeoffDembicki

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