Canada needs some credibility on the climate file

Anyone who's been paying attention and hasn't fallen prey to nutty conspiracy theories understands that climate change is a big deal that the world must, at some point, address. Most Canadians get this.

Anyone who’s been paying attention and hasn’t fallen prey to nutty conspiracy theories understands that climate change is a big deal that the world must, at some point, address. Most Canadians get this. Yet subsequent Canadian governments have done little to ensure our country does its part to lower carbon emissions.

It’s easy for critics of the Conservatives to blame the big, bad prime minister. But the reality is that the Liberals’ Jean Chretien made big promises to cut emissions, and then did absolutely nothing. Stephen Harper has only done pretty much the same, as evident by the recent findings of the federal environment commissioner that, to nobody’s surprise, Canada won’t meet its 2020 targets to curb carbon emissions.

Harper’s non-action amounted to two wagers. The first was that when Canadians are faced with an economic slump, concrete and immediate concerns like job security end up trumping big, complicated, long-simmering problems like climate change. The second was that many voters either wouldn’t notice or wouldn’t care that Harper was about to flip-flop and attack the very policy he had recently proposed. On both counts, it looks like Harper’s gamble paid off.

Back in 2008, when citizens did indicate that climate change was a priority, Harper listened and promised to introduce a cap-and-trade system to help put a price on carbon. Yet once the economy tanked and Canadians’ priorities shifted, Harper abandoned these plans. Now he calls the NDP’s own cap-and-trade proposal a “job-killing carbon tax.”

No matter that a number of studies have found that British Columbia’s carbon tax has not, in fact, hurt the province’s economy, although fuel use has seen a big drop. Similarly, Paul Krugman recently noted in his New York Times column that two big, reputable reports have concluded that putting a price on carbon has hardly any negative impact on economic growth, and could actually speed growth up.

Yet our federal politicians are generally terrified of being accused of raising taxes, so the policy debate on climate change tends to stop there. This is, in large part, likely due to the spectacular electoral loss suffered by the Liberals’ Stephane Dion when he decided to make a carbon tax a major plank in 2008. The lesson learned by many Canadian politicians was that being up-front about the cost of fighting climate change is electoral suicide.

Yet economists agree that the only smart way to curb emissions is to put a price on carbon. It doesn’t matter whether this is done through a tax or a cap-and-trade system; the outcome is the same. The chief advantage of cap-and-trade is that its boosters don’t need to say the word “tax” aloud. Instead, rising costs are passed along to consumers by companies. The big knock against such a system is the temptation for legislators to include loopholes that undermine the system’s intent.

However, cap-and-trade would be a big improvement over the Conservatives’ stated plans to use big government, command-and-control style regulations – especially as we’re still waiting for the government to introduce promised regulations for the oil and gas industry.

A compelling case could be made that the Canadian economy is actually being harmed from our country’s failure to address climate change. As the energy economist Andrew Leach recently opined in a Canadian Press article on the subject, Harper’s belligerence towards conservationists and our failure to rein in emissions makes it all the more politically difficult for Americans to approve pipelines to our oilsands.

In this way, Harper’s unbridled boosterism for industry actually works against industry’s interests. It’s a familiar dynamic here in the Yukon, given our own government’s botched handling of plans for a certain watershed.

Perhaps there’s a way to package carbon pricing in a way that seems palatable to the Canadian public. Certainly, a better salesman will be needed than well-meaning but often-unintelligible Dion.

He tried to sweeten his “Green Shift” by promising that the tax would be revenue neutral, in that any revenues raised would be foregone through other tax cuts or family supports. People sneered in disbelief. Yet B.C.‘s carbon tax actually does work this way.

Climate scientist James Hansen, who did much to raise the profile of climate change as head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has suggested framing the same concept a little differently. In it, fossil fuel companies would pay a rising fee, while all the revenues would be paid out in equal amount to citizens in dividend cheques. The government wouldn’t keep a penny.

The costs of fuel would rise, of course. But residents who managed to burn less carbon than average would make money, producing an incentive for everyone to shrink their carbon footprints.

Putting a price on carbon could be more painful in the Yukon than elsewhere. After all, we depend on fossil fuels more than many other Canadians, to heat our homes, to travel and to have our groceries and other goods hauled up the Alaska Highway.

Yet the impacts of climate change are also being felt the soonest in the territory. Highways are already buckling as permafrost melts. The territory’s glaciers have shrunk by one-fifth over the past 50 years. During that time the territory’s average temperature has risen by 4.5 degrees Celsius, outpacing every other region in northern Canada. Temperatures haven’t risen here so quickly since the Holocene epoch, 10,000 years ago.

If we expect the rest of the world to eventually act, there’s an obligation that we do our bit too.