The need to sell car­bon pric­ing

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - EDITORIAL -

When Justin Trudeau’s Lib­er­als an­nounced their plan to set a min­i­mum na­tional car­bon price that each prov­ince would be ex­pected to meet, they could take com­fort in grow­ing na­tional and con­ti­nen­tal con­sen­sus on the need for cli­mate-change ac­tion.

Back then, in 2016, On­tario and Que­bec had re­cently joined with Cal­i­for­nia to form a cap-and-trade car­bon mar­ket. Al­berta was al­ready im­ple­ment­ing a car­bon tax un­der its new NDP gov­ern­ment. U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama had in­tro­duced a range of reg­u­la­tions and in­cen­tives to curb emis­sions and his likely suc­ces­sor Hil­lary Clin­ton was poised to pick up where he left off.

Fewer than two years later, the Lib­er­als are run­ning into the po­lit­i­cal winds on this is­sue, rather than rid­ing them. Doug Ford, the new On­tario Premier, suc­cess­fully cam­paigned on pulling his prov­ince out of cap-and-trade, and is now do­ing just that. Al­berta’s United Con­ser­va­tive Party, ahead in the polls head­ing into next year’s pro­vin­cial elec­tion, vows to do like­wise with the car­bon tax. The White House is now oc­cu­pied by some­one who has scrapped Mr. Obama’s ef­forts and is ac­tively en­cour­ag­ing car­bon emis­sions, in­clud­ing by try­ing to re­vive the coal in­dus­try.

None of this is rea­son for Mr. Trudeau to aban­don his com­mit­ment. On the con­trary, it makes his gov­ern­ment’s lead­er­ship on what should be con­sid­ered one of hu­man­ity’s defin­ing chal­lenges – ar­rest­ing man-made cli­mate change that threatens the planet’s very fu­ture – all the more needed.

But it’s time to get more se­ri­ous about sell­ing Cana­di­ans on that need.

There has been an ap­par­ent com­pla­cency to the Lib­er­als’ com­mu­ni­ca­tion on this file that has grown more cu­ri­ous as car­bon-pric­ing op­po­nents have demon­strated their abil­ity to turn or rally vot­ers against it. At a time when she could be de­vot­ing al­most ev­ery avail­able minute to con­vince Cana­di­ans of the need for the fed­eral stan­dards set to take ef­fect at the start of next year, En­vi­ron­ment Min­is­ter Cather­ine McKenna is al­ready mov­ing on to cam­paign­ing against plas­tic straws.

Ei­ther the Lib­er­als are over­con­fi­dent that vot­ers will rec­og­nize they are on the right side of his­tory, with lit­tle fur­ther jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of higher prices for gaso­line and other goods re­quired, or they be­lieve that draw­ing lots of at­ten­tion to their plan would only in­vite more back­lash. Ei­ther way, they are at risk of al­low­ing crit­ics, notably the Of­fi­cial Op­po­si­tion Con­ser­va­tives, to de­fine the strat­egy as a need­less and puni­tive tax grab – and of those crit­ics fram­ing any changes, such as re­cently re­vealed tax mea­sures to soften the blow for large emit­ters, as recog­ni­tion that the en­tire plan is a bust.

Ad­mit­tedly, the case against car­bon pric­ing cur­rently makes for eas­ier politics than the one in favour. The U.S. re­treat on cli­mate pol­icy has added to a com­mon per­cep­tion that re­duc­ing our rel­a­tively small car­bon foot­print (less than 2 per cent of the global to­tal) is not worth the cost to con­sumers and po­ten­tial com­pet­i­tive dis­ad­van­tage for busi­nesses. And Mr. Trudeau’s pre­sen­ta­tion of car­bon pric­ing as li­cence to build in­fra­struc­ture to get our oil to mar­ket has not been helped by de­lays in con­struc­tion of the Trans Moun­tain pipe­line.

But there are cer­tainly ar­gu­ments for Canada do­ing its part, or at least re­but­tals to crit­i­cism, that the Lib­er­als could be mak­ing more strongly and with­out the dis­mis­sive tone they some­times adopt to­ward those they con­sider in­suf­fi­ciently en­light­ened on this sub­ject.

At min­i­mum, they should be em­pha­siz­ing (and en­sur­ing) that wher­ever Ot­tawa it­self col­lects car­bon taxes – which it is poised to do in prov­inces, in­clud­ing On­tario and Saskatchewan, that don’t have their own pric­ing in place – all rev­enues will be di­rectly re­turned to tax­pay­ers.

And they should be do­ing more to con­vince Cana­di­ans that we won’t suf­fer eco­nom­i­cally for im­pos­ing more am­bi­tious stan­dards than trad­ing part­ners; per­haps even that, by tak­ing a lead in tran­si­tion­ing to a low-emis­sions econ­omy, Canada will cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties to ex­port tech­nolo­gies and ex­per­tise to other coun­tries (in­clud­ing China and In­dia) seek­ing to do like­wise.

What­ever its best ar­gu­ments, Mr. Trudeau’s gov­ern­ment has to rec­og­nize that it is in a de­bate even less set­tled than it ap­peared a cou­ple of years ago.

Prov­ing that it is pos­si­ble to build con­sen­sus around car­bon pric­ing might be the best chance for Canada to punch above its weight, by help­ing point the way for politi­cians else­where. But the Lib­er­als should be more wor­ried than they ap­pear about in­stead pro­vid­ing an­other ex­am­ple of it be­ing a po­lit­i­cal loser of a cause.

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