The tangled battle over carbon emissions
The carbon-tax picture in Canada has become very, very messy.Premier Doug Ford’s decision to scrap Ontario’s cap-and-trade system has dramatically undermined how effectively the federal government’s carbon tax will reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the entire country, reports Maura Forrest.Further muddying the emissions waters is Premier Rachel Notley’s assertion that Alberta’s carbon tax will not increase over time to align with the federal standard until the federal government gets the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion built. And Alberta’s opposition leader, Jason Kenney, has vowed to scrap Alberta’s tax altogether if he’s elected next spring.Still, David Reevely writes, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have actually put up the most conservative climate-change plan Canada has ever seriously considered.Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne argues, the Liberals’ plan is not only the sole plan on offer, but it’s the best one.The federal Liberals have put up the most conservative climatechange plan Canada has ever seriously considered and Ontario’s conservative government hates it.It is, as you know, a tax on carbon-heavy fuels, of $20 for every tonne of carbon dioxide they’ll emit when burned. In the involved provinces, including Ontario, the money will be rebated in equal shares to taxpayers. The tax will rise over time.A carbon tax whose proceeds are returned this way — 90 per cent to individuals and 10 per cent to businesses, in this case — is the most conservative, economist-approved way of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Unlike most of our taxes, which skim off the top of wealth creation in various forms, a carbon tax punishes a behaviour we don’t want, namely polluting. This is the canonical right-wing approach to climate change.“The Trudeau carbon tax does nothing for the environment,” Premier Doug Ford said. Because ... prices don’t affect people’s behaviour? There’s no universe in which that’s true and it’s an especially weird notion to hear from a conservative. That prices matter is fundamental to everything we know about economics.“Our government is pursuing an innovative approach to protecting the environment and business for years to come,” Ford went on. “The minister of environment, conservation and parks recently launched public consultations as part of his development of a made-in-Ontario environment plan and is on track to present the plan in the coming months.”This is true, inasmuch as Environment Minister Rod Phillips put up an internet page inviting suggestions for a climate-change plan over the next couple of weeks. It is literally just one field on a web form, labelled “Your ideas.” It doesn’t offer possibilities the government is considering, or ask you to weigh competing values, or do anything else that might help gauge Ontarians’ views on this fraught matter. Just, “Your ideas.”The conservatives cancelled Ontario’s cap-and-trade program without having any idea what they might replace it with. We have one live plan to combat climate change in Ontario, the federal one, and they’re beating it down with no alternative to propose, while insisting they’re the virtuous ones.“The people of Ontario know I will do everything in my power and use every tool at my disposal to fight this punishing, jobkilling tax. We will take this fight all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary — but more importantly, we will take this fight to the people,” Ford said.A person could honestly argue that climate change isn’t a problem we should seek to do anything about, or that the federal Liberals’ plan isn’t the best thing to do. That’s not what the Ontario Tories are arguing. They’re just shouting.Professors Jack Mintz of the University of Calgary and Nancy Olewiler of Simon Fraser University, both noted economists, made the case for carbon taxes to replace the federal gas tax in a seminal paper in 2008, back when it looked as though the federal Conservatives were interested in doing something.“In short, converting the existing tax on vehicle fuels into a broader, environmentally based fuel tax, and using the revenues to reduce other taxes, could contribute to both a better environment and economy,” they wrote.The current federal Liberal plan is even more fiscally conservative: rather than plugging the carbon tax’s revenues into twiddly tax cuts here and there, they’ll just give everyone money back. If you use a lot of gasoline and natural gas and buy a lot of stuff that travels a long way, you’ll still come out behind. If your lifestyle involves less polluting, which really is most people, you’ll come out ahead.Unlike cap-and-trade emissions permits, a carbon tax is simple to administer: once the government decides just what it’s going to tax and by how much, the proceeds come in, they get tallied, divvied up, and sent out again. Using the Canadian Revenue Agency, a bureaucracy we already have.The top-level math to make sure the government’s not messing around doesn’t require a team of auditors. How much came in? OK, did the same amount go out? If not, we’ll adjust the rebates for next year. Repeat annually. A fourthgrader could do it with a pocket calculator.The best part, the thing that makes this notion extra-bonus conservative, is that people who pollute a lot can become people who pollute less. Whatever works for you, you can do. The government’s not ordering you to switch out all your light bulbs for LEDs or whatever. It’s just saying that dumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere has a cost and it’ll be borne by the people who do it. The invisible subsidy for waste will be reduced, gradually, and eventually disappear.Versions of this have demonstrably worked in jurisdictions from Australia to Europe to British Columbia. The knock on them is that they haven’t cut those places’ greenhouse-gas emissions enough yet. In fact, they’re all designed to increase slowly so people have time to adjust. This is a shift, not a shock. That’s easily, and inaccurately, simplified to “Carbon taxes don’t work.”This argument can’t go on much longer before we’re locked in one way or the other, and hard truths have a difficult time standing up to comforting BS.Some personal news: Eighteen years, three owners, four editorsin-chief and five newsroom jobs later, this is my last regular column here. On Monday, I start as a news editor in the Ottawa bureau of The Canadian Press, covering Parliament Hill. You’ll still see my work here, just behind other people’s bylines. Thanks to my editors over the years (especially Andrew Potter, who asked me to start writing a column on provincial politics seconds before the Ontario election in 2014), and to my many gifted co-workers. Every one of them is driven by love of the craft of journalism, this city, and the truth. Thank you for reading.
Ontario Environment Minister Rod Phillips has put up an internet page to gather public suggestions for a climate-change plan.
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