Last night, federal leaders gathered for the one and only English language debate of this election. The good news was that, for the first time ever, there was an entire debate segment about climate change. The bad news is that it missed the mark and failed to give voters the information they need, namely whether or not any of our political parties actually have a plan to meet the climate emergency. 

It’s especially disappointing because they really only needed to ask one question – will you leave enough fossil fuels in the ground to meet our climate obligations? 

This Wednesday, while thousands of people across Canada were participating in a national day of climate action, the journal Nature published a major new climate report. Titled “Unextractable fossil fuels in a 1.5 °C world,” the report is an update to previous estimates on how much global fossil fuels would need to be left in the ground to meet the Paris Agreement commitment to limit warming to 1.5ºC. And, the news for Canada is stark. 

According to the report, Canada needs to leave 83% of our proven oil reserves, 80% of gas and 83% of coal in the ground to do our part. Diving deeper into the oil numbers, the report found that “84% of the 49 billion barrels (Gb) of Canadian oil sands we estimate as proven reserves” need to stay in the ground. 

These numbers put Canada among the top nations when it comes to the amount of fossil fuels we need to leave in the ground to do our part in keeping the world below 1.5ºC. For a country with a massive fossil fuel sector, this is a huge problem. And, it’s one that requires big, bold solutions to both meet the climate moment, and ensure that we don’t leave workers and communities – especially rural and Indigneous communities – behind in doing so. But, watching the debate last night, you wouldn’t really know if any of our political leaders really understand that. 

At this point in the campaign, no federal leader has faced a serious line of questioning on the need for Canada to leave fossil fuels in the ground. The Liberals added a vague promise to their platform to regulate oil and gas companies in line with their promise to meet net zero emissions by 2050, but what that actually means is still anyone’s guess. And, most other parties aren’t much better. Many pundits are giving the Conservatives points for being in the climate game in 2021, but their plan lets Big OIl keep expanding with a promise that $5 billion invested into carbon capture will deliver some kind of silver bullet down the line. And, while the NDP platform pledges to cut fossil fuel subsidies and puts some big policy ideas on top of keeping the Liberal carbon price, including just transition policies, the NDP leader still can’t bring himself to promise to stop fossil fuel expansion. Although an encouraging number of climate focused candidates seem willing to. The Green leader has pledged to stop fossil fuel expansion, but unfortunately the party is in rough shape and fighting for their lives, not driving the debate or seriously competing for power.

Canada needs to undergo a major economic transformation if we’re going to meet the climate crisis. We have to leave more than 80% of our fossil fuel reserves in the ground. We need to stop being one of the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters and chart a new course. For many, myself included, the promise of a just transition that puts us on the path to a Green New Deal is the most appealing option. But, it’s not the only option, and voters in this country deserve to hear how every political party will meet this moment. 

And, the parties’ plans deserve to be scrutinized. We need to know what the Liberals actually plan to do when they promise to regulate oil and gas. Will they cap expansion in line with levels outlined in the Nature report? Or, like the Conservatives, will they hedge their bets on unproven carbon capture technologies to offset ongoing fossil fuel expansion

We deserve to know whether any party has a real plan to support workers and communities through a just transition. That means more than consultations and rhetoric. We need real plans to guarantee jobs for workers and take on big public works projects to retool our economy away from fossil fuels. And, we need to know not just who has policies, but serious plans to make them happen. How do parties that can’t form government plan to make governing parties enact their policies?

We deserve answers to these climate questions and we aren’t getting them from politicians and we didn’t get them from last night’s debate. But, we can change that by rallying behind real climate champions, the kinds of candidates who understand the scale of this crisis and can actually answer the question – “a new report says that Canada needs to leave at least 80% of its fossil fuel reserves in ground to meet our Paris commitments, how will you do that?”