Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday duked it out with Tory leader Erin O'Toole over climate change and the timing of Canadian elections amid the pandemic, in one of two pivotal debates as elections draw near.
The environment is among the top issues cited by Canadians heading into the September 20 vote, while Trudeau has seen his support plunge after calling early elections.
He now trails O'Toole in the polls 33.7 percent to 31.2 percent -- within the margin of error.
In a poignant moment in the French-language debate, a boy far too young to vote, but concerned about his future, asked the leaders how they would deal with warming.
Trudeau, who has campaigned on a green recovery, touted his plan to slash carbon emissions by hiking a carbon tax incrementally to Can$170 per tonne by the end of the decade, saying it has been judged the best by experts.
He accused the Conservatives of "going backwards" in endorsing a commitment under the 2015 Paris climate agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030, from 2005 levels.
The Liberals are the "only ones with a real plan to tackle climate change," he asserted, while assailing O'Toole over his pledge to revive a pipeline project from the Alberta oil sands to the Pacific port of Kitimat.
O'Toole countered that a strong economic recovery is required in order to pay for environmental measures, and pointed out that the Trudeau administration has missed its emissions targets to date.
Jagmeet Singh, leader of the leftist New Democratic Party, also piled on, saying to Trudeau in regards to emissions, "In six years, you have the worst record of the G7."
Canada is the world's fourth largest oil producer, and the sector's emissions have stymied its climate efforts.
In March O'Toole found himself at odds with his rank-and-file after telling a party convention that a robust plan to tackle climate change was needed if the Conservatives ever hoped to unseat Trudeau.
Members instead voted down a resolution that said "climate change is real."
- On the defensive-
On Wednesday, the debate moderator pressed O'Toole to explain "how we can pollute less by consuming more" under the Conservatives' CO2 affinity program.
The party proposes creating "low carbon savings accounts" with points earned by spending on gasoline, for example, to be used to buy items from an approved green list.
Earlier in the debate Trudeau was forced into a defensive crouch for having pulled the plug on his minority government to force the snap elections.
"Now is not the time for an election. Why in the middle of a pandemic did you call an election?" said O'Toole, echoed by other political party leaders on the stage.
Trudeau has been accused of calling the election while high in the polls, hoping to regain a majority in the House of Commons.
But few Canadians wanted an election so soon after emerging from pandemic lockdowns while another Covid surge threatens a return to offices and schools.
Trudeau, the son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, swept to power in 2015 unseating the Tories in office for almost a decade.
But fatigue has set in, while his golden boy image has been tarnished by scandals.
Fighting back, Trudeau said Canadians face important challenges ahead and must decide which party is best prepared to steer Canada's pandemic exit.
"We can clearly see that there are quite profound differences in our vision for the country. These elections are a chance for Canadians to choose," he said.
Along with Singh, separatist Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and Green Party leader Annamie Paul, Trudeau and O'Toole also sparred over runaway Covid deaths at elderly care homes, mandatory vaccines, public finances, and indigenous reconciliation.
A second debate, in English, is scheduled for Thursday evening.