Over the decade that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative party have been in power, Canada’s share of the booming global cleantech market has seen a sharp decline.
Canada’s cleantech industry has grown to nearly $12 billion. Yet the country has lost 71 percent of its market share for renewable energy and energy-efficiency goods since 2005 -- the biggest loss among the top 24 exporters of environmental goods, according to a report by Analytica Advisors.
Many now wonder if this week’s landslide victory for Justin Trudeau, leader of the Liberal Party, will reboot the country’s clean-energy industry and reposition Canada as an environmental leader.
The Liberals won 184 seats in Monday’s election, which allows the party to form a majority government. Harper’s Conservatives, with 99 seats, will become the official opposition group. The New Democratic Party, which was close with its competitors in the polls, ultimately won just 44 seats.
While the left-wing NDP and Liberals battled each other for seats, the parties were united in getting Harper voted out.
“Canadians from all across this great country sent a clear message tonight: It’s time for a change in this country, my friends, a real change,” Trudeau told a crowd of supporters in Montreal.
But just how much change will a Liberal government bring to Canada’s energy landscape?
Over the course of his tenure, Prime Minister Harper, who represents a riding in oil-rich Alberta, has painted Canada as an “energy superpower.” Conservatives tied the country’s prosperity directly to the exploitation of natural resources.
When oil prices crashed last year and the oil industry suffered, this strategy became a liability. Both environmentalists and pro-industry groups have criticized Harper for depending so heavily on fossil fuels.
Trudeau has vowed to enact a new energy and environment policy for Canada. He’s pledged to reverse cuts to government science budgets and set up a $2 billion fund to promote clean-energy technologies. He has also committed to re-engaging in international climate negotiations and setting new national emissions reductions targets.
Canada reneged on its climate commitments under the Kyoto Protocol in December 2011. For many, the move was an embarrassment. Canada was pulling back on climate action as the United States was beefing up its efforts under President Obama.
“A Harper loss will send a strong signal, ahead of Paris and to Republicans in the U.S., that climate inaction is increasingly becoming a losing political strategy even in developed countries with large fossil-fuel resources,” Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate change official, told E&E News. “A Trudeau government is also likely to push national carbon pricing, increasing both opportunities for U.S. states to combine carbon markets with Canada and the potential of a pan-North-American carbon market.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has already launched an effort to unite carbon markets in the Northeast and California with provincial carbon markets in Ontario and Quebec.
But not everyone believes a Liberal victory will transform Canada’s reputation as a laggard on clean energy and climate.
For one thing, Trudeau supports the Keystone XL pipeline, which environmental groups staunchly oppose and President Obama refuses to approve. He also supports TransCanada’s proposed $12 billion Energy East pipeline designed to carry Alberta crude to the Atlantic.
Trudeau supports the idea of a carbon tax, but believes that the provinces should have more control of their carbon-cutting strategies.
David Suzuki, a Canadian environmental activist and TV personality, was asked to endorse the Liberal candidate, but refused, MacLean's reports. Trudeau's policies "are all over the damn map!" Suzuki said. In response, the Liberal leader reportedly called Suzuki's views "sanctimonious crap."
According to Suzuki, Trudeau does not appreciate that in order to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, the widely agreed-upon target to avoid disastrous climate change, 80 percent of Alberta’s crude oil would need to stay in the ground.
Greenpeace expressed cautious optimism about the Liberal government.
“Canadians voted for change, and change isn’t only about who sits in the Prime Minister’s Office. After nine years of Conservative rule, we need a federal government committed to reinvigorating our democracy, restoring environmental protections, and taking bold action on climate change,” said Joanna Kerr, executive director of Greenpeace Canada. “The Liberal government has an unprecedented opportunity to reject boom-and-bust polluting industries by stopping tar-sands expansion and making Canada a leader in renewable energies.”
Now that Trudeau has won a firm majority, he could take a stronger stand on Canada’s climate agenda. But for a resource-rich country like Canada, climate action will always be a balancing act.
Most Canadians support responsible resource development, even in Alberta. A recent public opinion poll found that 53 percent of Albertans want stronger policies to cut carbon emissions, even if that means oil sands companies must pay higher costs to produce oil. Nearly half of respondents think the oil sands industry is already large enough, and a strong majority -- 70 percent -- supports investing in renewable-energy sources to reduce the province’s reliance on coal-fired electricity.
A growing number of Canadians view Harper’s singular focus on expanding the oil sands as a detriment to the country overall.
The Liberals appear to be charting a middle course. The party has called for more stringent environmental reviews of new oil pipelines and has pledged to include greenhouse-gas emissions into the calculus for approving major energy projects like pipelines.
“The environment and the economy…go together,” Trudeau said in an interview with CBS News in June. “They go together like paddles and canoes. If you don’t take care of both, you’re never going to get to where you’re going.”