OTTAWA—It was meant as a gotcha moment in the election debate as Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer accused Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau of climate change hypocrisy for using not one but two jets for campaign travel.
But in an election where climate change worries have Canadians marching in the streets, the scene of two political leaders trading barbs over their personal campaign jets left environmental experts shaking their heads.
They say the debate tussle distracts from the bigger climate change challenge and left the impression that carbon offsets — Trudeau’s rationale that it was OK for having two jets — gives licence to environmentally harmful behaviour.
And there are questions whether it’s time to shake up the traditional style of campaigning, that has buses and planes criss-crossing the country, especially in the wake of a report from the United Nations panel on climate change last year that said more urgent action was needed to curb emissions.
Green party Leader Elizabeth May — who travels by train and electric vehicles when she can — has long brought an environmental focus to the way she gets around. And the New Democrats say they plan their campaign travel to minimize the number of flights.
“I know that political leaders would say it’s a campaign, we need to reach out, we need to be in touch with the people, we need to hear from the people,” said Kate Ervine, associate professor, international development studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.
“That report was really clear. It said that we need sweeping, transformation of all our systems in society, including transportation. That includes air travel,’ said Ervine, author of the book, “Carbon.”
“Yet nothing changes in terms of the idea that perhaps we need to campaign differently. Perhaps we need to cut back,” she said in an interview Thursday.
Scheer used the French debate to highlight the fact that the Liberals are using two jets in this campaign and noted the Conservative campaign is only using one.
“We’ve decided to get by with just the one plane… I don’t buy Mr. Trudeau’s excuse that somehow purchasing some credits excuses him, gives him the privilege to burn more fuel,” Scheer said Thursday.
The Liberals conceded that they have two jets, one for Trudeau and his entourage and another to move campaign personnel and equipment. Unlike the Conservatives, the Liberal campaign says it intends to buy carbon offsets for the environmental harm caused by the cross-country flights.
Carbon offsets are purchased to mitigate an activity that creates emissions. The money funds projects that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as tree planting or renewable energy.
Trudeau attacked the Conservatives for what he claimed were “well-established far-right” tactics to distract from the real climate change issues.
“What we’re seeing here from the Conservatives is a classic and desperate attempt to distract from the fact that they have zero approach on climate change, don’t even think it’s important,” Trudeau said Thursday.
Ervine noted that air travel, like the frequent campaign flights, is “massively carbon intensive” and while offsetting can help fund projects that help reduce greenhouse gases, at best it only cancels out the emissions caused by a flight.
“It’s only in theory about balancing it out. So that’s another part of the problem. We need a strategy to lower emissions not simply cancel out the bad,” Ervine said.
But the bigger problem is that offsetting gives “licence to continue doing whatever it is you are doing … and nothing has to change. The science shows that things must drastically change,” Ervine said.
Keith Stewart, a senior energy strategist with Greenpeace Canada, said the debate over campaign planes is a “diversion” that takes away from the discussion needed on how Canada will reduce and eventually eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, which total some 716 million tonnes a year.
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“The Conservatives are being incredible cynical here by avoiding a conversation about climate change by making it about personal behaviour,” he said.
“The more important issue here is during an election campaign, parties should be talking about their plan to get rid of 700 million tonnes of emissions,” he said in an interview.
Three of the political parties — the Liberals, Green party and NDP — have set a goal of getting to net-zero emissions by 2050, either by eliminating emissions or offsetting them through other actions.
“That is huge. That requires governments to do a lot of stuff … How do we actually deal with emissions from all sources and all sectors,” Stewart said.
May’s environmentally friendly approach to how she gets around on her campaigns included a coast-to-coast whistle-stop tour by train in the 2008 election.
“We use the train as much as possible, only use electric vehicles when on the road, use public ferries as needed and fly commercial in economy class,” said Debra Eindiguer, of the Green party.
“No bells and whistles. No big buses. No private planes. When the leader travels to any one location, we maximize the visit by piggybacking as many events as possible. We avoid zipping back and forth across the country. That further reduces our carbon footprint,” she said in an email.
The party is tracking the carbon footprint for the campaign — 25 tonnes so far — and will do offsets once it’s over.
The Liberals have leased a Boeing 737-800 from Air Transat as their main campaign plane and are also using an older 737-200 to move equipment and advance personnel.
The Conservatives have chartered their aircraft — a 21-year-old Airbus A319 — from Air Canada. On its website, the airline does allow passengers to buy offsets. For example, a flight between Ottawa and Vancouver would create 1.4 tonnes of emissions and a passenger could pay $43.97, plus taxes, to purchase an offset, according to the website.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is using a Boeing 737-300 to get around the country. Campaign spokesperson Melanie Richer said the tour is planned to minimize air travel as much as possible by spending more time in a region rather than flying back and forth.
“We will be doing everything that we can to limit the campaign’s carbon footprint, and yes we are planning to offset our emissions,” Richer said in email to the Star.