Cut the climate change cowardice

The Yukon isn't yet ready to have an adult discussion about how to do our part addressing climate change - at least, not with Premier Darrell Pasloski and Liberal Leader Sandy Silver at the table.

The Yukon isn’t yet ready to have an adult discussion about how to do our part addressing climate change – at least, not with Premier Darrell Pasloski and Liberal Leader Sandy Silver at the table.

This much is obvious from an exchange between these two that played out last week. Pasloski started things by blasting the federal Liberals’ plans to set emissions reduction targets for the provinces and territories.

Most economists agree that the smart way to achieve such a goal is to put a price on carbon pollution. This is not just an idea embraced by crunchy environmentalists – conservatives concerned by climate change, like Preston Manning, support it, too, because it lets market forces do the heavy lifting, rather than government regulations.

In fact, Stephen Harper once touted this approach too, with the introduction of a cap-and-trade system, until he later changed his mind and started accusing the opposition of planning to impose a job-killing tax on everything. Pasloski, as a loyal Conservative partisan, is just reading off the same script now.

This much is predictable, if sad and a little embarrassing. But what’s all the more remarkable that the premier isn’t even willing to defend his own policies in any detail.

In a recent interview on this subject, Pasloski kept touting the territory’s climate change action plan, but he was unable to say how well this scheme is working. No wonder: what evidence we do have suggests it is accomplishing very little.

Some background: back in 2009, the Yukon government vowed to set a target for reducing emissions within two years. But in 2012 it scrapped those plans, saying that it would be impossible to forecast the territory’s economic growth. Instead, it set a new goal: to cut the government’s own carbon emissions by 20 per cent, to 2010 levels, by 2015.

It seems extremely unlikely we will meet this target. The most recent available figures, from 2012, showed just a two per cent reduction in emissions during those two years. When you consider that the government’s operations comprise about one-tenth of the territory’s total carbon pollution, this reduction is not meaningful. It’s hard to imagine the territory closing the remaining 18-per-cent gap with our emissions target by the end of this year without some sort of bold action, and the premier’s inability to offer specifics suggests this is not in the plans.

Our reporter was able to ask the premier two questions before he abruptly ended the call, after just four minutes: What evidence is there that the Yukon government’s carbon reduction policies are working? And what are you willing to do to ensure these targets are made?

These are not exactly curveballs. It’s simply asking the premier to provide some evidence to support his contention that we are doing our part to reduce carbon emissions.

Pasloski wouldn’t say. Instead, he made gestures to things like the government’s long-overdue plans to build a new hydro dam. The trouble is, this may help slow future emissions growth, but it won’t shrink our carbon output, the bulk of which stems from transportation and home heating.

If the premier were being honest, he would just come out and say that he isn’t serious about doing our part to help curb the carbon emissions that are responsible for warming the world. Of course, when you put it that baldly, the fundamental selfishness of this position becomes clear.

Pasloski has correctly noted that the Yukon faces a disproportionate burden in lowering emissions, due to our remoteness, small population and cold climate. Given this, you could make a reasoned case that Canada’s territories deserve some sort of break under a national scheme to reduce carbon emissions.

The trouble with this argument is that it could be equally made about Canada’s role among other countries. Of course, many other countries have similarly novel arguments about why the world should collectively act to curb emissions, but they should be exempt. And this all helps explain why carbon output keeps rising.

Pasloski is right that a simple carbon tax applied to the Yukon would hit residents in remote communities like Old Crow the hardest. But this is not an unsolvable problem, if the Yukon were to design its own carbon pricing scheme, as the federal Liberals propose. B.C. gives a rebate to its northern and rural residents to help take the sting off its carbon tax. There’s no reason that the Yukon couldn’t do the same thing.

If we’re interested in keeping money in residents’ pockets, we could also opt for a fee-and-dividend system, in which every single penny collected through carbon revenues is disbursed back to residents. Anyone who managed to burn less-than-average carbon would make money, spurring residents to shrink their carbon footprints. And there’s no reason that further-flung communities couldn’t receive a bigger dividend to help ease the pain.

You would think that the territorial Liberals would offer some of these suggestions themselves. Instead, Silver says a carbon pricing scheme isn’t right for the territory, yet unhelpfully won’t say what he would do instead.

The funny thing is, Yukoners already pay a carbon tax. It just happens to be levied in B.C., before pretty much everything we consume is hauled up the Alaska Highway.

What’s more, while we’re effectively paying the fee of B.C.‘s system, we receive no dividend from the deal, as B.C. residents do in the form of rebates and reductions in other taxes. So Yukoners may actually be shortchanged from our lack of a harmonized regional carbon tax regime.

This is something that a mature politician would be willing to discuss. Too bad that’s currently not happening.