Cautious Optimism On The Liberal Plan for Science and the Environment

The Liberal Party’s platform outlines many positive initiatives for science and the environment. Their good intentions need to be translated into good policy.

I had a nice discussion on Friday with Stephanie Domet/CBC Mainstreet Halifax about what the new federal government could mean for science and the environment (also see CBC News). I expressed “cautious optimism” as a result of several encouraging proposals outlined in the Liberal Party’s election platform.

The Liberal platform features a section devoted to the environment and the economy.
The Liberal platform features a section devoted to the environment and the economy.

Caution, nevertheless, is warranted. I have said for some time that ridding ourselves of the Harper government is a “necessary but not sufficient condition” for progress on science and the environment. The good intentions expressed in the Liberal plan now need to be translated into good policy.

Below I discuss their full platform and supporting documents. Rather than reviewing the general principles outlined in their plan, I have catalogued – in five subsections – specific proposals against which we can measure the new government’s actions.


  • “We will revoke rules and regulations that muzzle government scientists and allow them to speak freely about their work, with only limited and publicly stated exceptions.” (A fair and open government, pg. 10)

    Hallelujah. This can’t happen soon enough.

    Status: In progress.

  • “We will appoint a Chief Science Officer who will ensure that government science is fully available to the public, that scientists are able to speak freely about their work, and that scientific analyses are considered when the government makes decisions.” (Main platform, pg. 36)

    Scientists have been arguing for a Chief Science Officer since the Conservatives eliminated the National Science Advisor in 2008.

  • “We will immediately restore the mandatory long-form census.” (Main platform, pg. 36)

    The long-form census was eliminated by the Conservatives in 2010, and there have been widespread calls for its restoration ever since.

    Status: Promise kept.

  • “We will make Statistics Canada fully independent.” (Main platform, pg. 37)

    This is an interesting proposal, presumably designed to protect Statistics Canada from political interference. I would expect its success to be highly dependent on implementation details.

  • “We will restore $1.5 million in annual federal funding for freshwater research – a program that was cut by the Conservatives – and make new investments in Canada’s world-leading IISD Experimental Lakes Area.” (Main platform, pg. 43)

    The ELA, perhaps the most important science facility in Canada, was canned by the Harper government in 2012. It was eventually transferred to IISD, although its long-term future remains in doubt. This re-engagement with ELA by the federal government is most welcome news.

  • “To foster the creativity that leads to cutting-edge research, we will establish Canada Research Chairs in sustainable technology.” (Main platform, pg. 41)

    This is one proposal that I am not favourable to. In my opinion, the Canada Research Chairs program (and others like it) have been steadily undermining our universities. It would be better to invest these funds in granting councils. Discussion of science granting programs is notably absent from the Liberal plan.

Climate Change

  • “As Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau will attend the December 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, and will invite all Premiers to join him. Within 90 days of the conference, a First Ministers meeting will be held to work together on a framework to combat climate change.” (A new plan for Canada’s environment and economy, pg. 4)

    Premiers and opposition members were traditionally included in Canada’s climate conference delegations until the Harper government. A dispute over attendance at climate meetings famously led Justin Trudeau to call Environment Minister Peter Kent a “piece of shit” in the House of Commons.

    Status: Promise kept.

  • “We will fulfill our G20 commitment and phase out subsidies for the fossil fuel industry over the medium-term.” (Main platform, pg. 40)

    The elimination of fossil fuel subsidies is widely seen as an important step in fighting climate change, and is supported by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

  • “We will provide national leadership and join with the provinces and territories to take action on climate change, put a price on carbon, and reduce carbon pollution.” (Main platform, pg. 39)

    A price on carbon is widely regarded to be an important tool in the fight against climate change. British Columbia already has a carbon tax, and Quebec and Ontario have joined California in a cap-and-trade system. Progress in other provinces is needed.

  • “We will work together to establish national emissions-reduction targets, and ensure that the provinces and territories have targeted federal funding and the flexibility to design their own policies to meet these commitments, including their own carbon pricing policies.” (Main platform, pg. 40)

    The lack of emissions targets is a glaring hole in the Liberal plan. Canada has already submitted targets to the UN in advance of the Paris climate conference (30% below 2005 by 2050), which the Liberal plan calls “inadequate” (A new plan for Canada’s environment and economy, pg. 4). New targets will need to be determined in time for the Paris summit. Of course, both targets and policies to meet them are needed, which the Liberal plan acknowledges.

  • “Partnering with the provinces and territories, we will create a new Low Carbon Economy Trust. The Trust will provide funding to projects that materially reduce carbon emissions under the new pan-Canadian framework. We will endow the Low Carbon Economy Trust with $2 billion in our mandate.” (Main platform, pg. 40)

    This is an interesting proposal with a budget that suggests this will be a signature program.

  • “We will invest $100 million more each year in clean technology producers, so that they can tackle Canada’s most pressing environmental challenges, and create more opportunities for Canadian workers.” (Main platform, pg. 40)

    As long as by “clean” we mean things like wind and solar energy, and not the inappropriately-named “clean coal”, then this investment will be very welcome.

  • “We will also invest $200 million more each year to support innovation and the use of clean technologies in our natural resource sectors, including the forestry, fisheries, mining, energy, and agricultural sectors.” (Main platform, pg. 40)

    Again, as long as “clean” means “zero carbon emissions”, then this sounds worthwhile.

  • “To support both large- and community-scale renewable energy projects, the new Canada Infrastructure Bank will issue Green Bonds to fund projects like electric vehicle charging stations and networks, transmission lines for renewable energy, building retrofits, and clean power storage.” (Main platform, pg. 40)

    This is another worthwhile proposal, consistent with the notion that significant emissions reductions will require a multi-faceted approach.

Environmental Legislation

  • “Stephen Harper’s changes to the Fisheries Act, and his elimination of the Navigable Waters Protection Act, have weakened environmental protections. We will review these changes, restore lost protections, and incorporate more modern safeguards.” (Main platform, pg. 42)

    The Harper government gutted Canada’s environmental protection regime. We will need to watch carefully to ensure the Liberals restore what took generations to build.

  • “We will also work to better protect Canada’s endangered species. This means responding faster to scientific advice on listing species, meeting mandatory timelines for responding to Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) recommendations, and completing robust species at risk recovery plans.” (A new plan for Canada’s environment and economy, pg. 10)

    The oil industry has been lobbying hard for changes to the Species at Risk Act. This is another file to watch closely.

Environmental Monitoring

  • “Stephen Harper cut $40 million from the federal ocean science and monitoring programs. We will restore that funding so that we can protect the health of our fish stocks, monitor contaminants and pollution in our oceans, and support responsible and sustainable aquaculture industries on our coasts.” (Main platform, pg. 44)

    This is a very welcome proposal that should help repair a gravely damaged DFO. Noticeably absent from the Liberal plan, however, are similar proposals to help Environment Canada (EC), National Research Council (NRC), and other such institutions. Rebuilding federal science capacity will be a generational project.

  • “We will increase science spending in our National Parks by $25 million per year to allow for early identification of ecological stresses and avoid permanent degradation.” (A new plan for Canada’s environment and economy, pg. 10)

    It was said that the Harper government “lobotomized” Parks Canada. Rebuilding Parks Canada’s science capacity will also require significant attention.

Environmental Protection

  • “We will make up for Conservative inaction and increase the amount of Canada’s marine and coastal areas that are protected – to five percent by 2017, and ten percent by 2020. To help achieve this, we will invest $8 million per year in community consultation and science.” (Main platform, pg. 43)

    This proposal would fulfil certain commitments to the Aichi Biodiversity Targets to which the Harper government agreed but made little progress on. This setting of targets without policies to meet them mirrors the Harper government’s approach to climate change.

  • “An important first step will be the formalization of the moratorium on crude oil tanker traffic on British Columbia’s North Coast, including the Dixon Entrance, Hecate Strait, and Queen Charlotte Sound.” (A new plan for Canada’s environment and economy, pg. 11)

    I believe that an end to tanker traffic in these areas would effectively end Enbridge’s plans for the Northern Gateway Pipeline.

  • “We will modernize and rebuild trust in the National Energy Board.” (A new plan for Canada’s environment and economy, pg. 9)

    It is now understood that NEB has been captured by the oil industry (see here and here). Rebuilding trust is essential, but will be extraordinarily difficult.

  • “We will explore, consult, and work collaboratively to move towards a system where federal environmental assessments of projects include an analysis of upstream impacts and the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the projects being assessed.” (A new plan for Canada’s environment and economy, pg. 9)

    This commitment is a bit wishy-washy, but I include it here because of NEB’s refusals to consider greenhouse gas emissions and climate change in pipeline assessments. How the Liberals choose to proceed on this issue will be very telling.

(Updated 10 March 2016)