Like it or not, the North’s carbon tax reckoning will come

It’s a good thing for Premier Darrell Pasloski that Canada does not yet, as the Trudeau government has promised, have a nationwide tax on carbon emissions.

It’s a good thing for Premier Darrell Pasloski that Canada does not yet, as the Trudeau government has promised, have a nationwide tax on carbon emissions. The amount of hot air Pasloski has himself emitted on the subject of carbon pricing would have the premier on the hook for a hefty bill.

He is not alone in this: his two territorial counterparts, the NWT’s Bob McLeod and Nunavut’s Peter Taptuna, this week reaffirmed their collective opposition to carbon pricing of any kind.

“A carbon tax doesn’t work in the North. Instead of imposing a made-in-the-South tax on Northerners, Canada should work collaboratively with the territories to help us implement climate solutions that reflect the realities of northern communities,” Pasloski said in a release Thursday. “We as territorial premiers must ensure the economic impacts of our climate solutions create jobs, not kill jobs.”

If you’re playing pre-election sloganeering bingo at home, this passage will allow you dab a couple of squares. “Made-in-the-south” is a classic bit of invoking fear of the other, while the last three words of his statement vibrates at the dog-whistle frequency of the federal Conservative Party’s refrain “job-killing carbon tax” which the Tories used as a blunt object to hammer any opposition criticism of their environmental policies.

The state of the discourse on carbon pricing is everywhere regrettable. Many conservatives simply hear the phrase “carbon tax” and promptly shut down the left side of their brains. But ideological conservatives ought to embrace carbon pricing, because it provides a simple, market-based way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without requiring the sort of unwieldy, state-heavy bureaucracy required to enforce the regulations that would otherwise be required to get a handle on pollution.

It is true carbon prices raise the cost of fuel and by extension, consumer goods. They do this in order to send price signals to consumers, urging them to adopt lower-carbon options. They change the contours of the market, but they still allow the individual consumers who make up the market to decide. This is, or was, an article of faith among economic conservatives.

And it’s why such decidedly non-radical figures like Preston Manning, the World Bank and numerous Canadian oil companies, not to mention economists from across the political spectrum, now embrace carbon pricing as the most effective way to cut emissions.

With the exception of Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia, the provincial premiers are either already on board with carbon pricing, or resigned to the inevitable. The territorial leaders claim the Northern situation is unique, and, to be fair, they are right. Our economies are smaller, energy costs are higher and our far-flung communities mean transportation of people and goods will necessarily be more energy intensive.

But this is not, as Pasloski appears to think, cause to call the whole thing off. McLeod, the NWT premier (and a man who has engaged in his own brand of magical thinking on emissions, calling for immediate action on climate change while simultaneously urging quick development of his territory’s prodigious oil and gas reserves), is at least leaving the door open to alternatives. “A national carbon pricing strategy could not be viable in the NWT unless it alleviates or compensates for the high cost of living and doing business in the North,” he said in a release Thursday.

Pasloski’s denial of carbon pricing has been accompanied with some vague talk about a program of retrofitting Yukon buildings instead, which is fine as far as it goes. But the premier has deliberately implied that a national carbon price would simply increase consumer prices without discussing the numerous policy options governments have to offset those impacts on citizens.

According to a report by Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, of which Manning is a member, British Columbia used carbon tax revenues to cut personal and corporate taxes. Alberta’s 2012 system, which is under review by the newish NDP government, put money into alternative energy demonstration projects. Quebec plans to funnel carbon cash into public transportation projects.

The Quebec and BC models don’t offer much for the Northern experience. But any policymaker with a shred of imagination could conceive ways to direct carbon pricing revenue to the territories in ways that make sense for them: Ottawa could agree to return all such revenue to the North, through increases to the Northern residents tax deduction, more capital funding for green projects including clean electrical production, and/or a guaranteed transfer of carbon tax revenue to territorial, First Nation and municipal governments north of 60.

The territories do not have the money to fully overhaul their economies without significant help from the federal government. Ottawa once ran the territorial power utilities and in many places left behind woefully out-of-date, carbon-belching diesel power plants when it downloaded the old Northern Canada Power Commission to the territorial governments. The federal government is morally obligated to help the territories through this transition. And since the territories have been burned in the past by federal Liberal governments, the Martin budget cuts of 1996 being a prime example, some skepticism is warranted. This is politics. Skepticism is always warranted.

Pasloski’s current approach of denial, oversimplification and fearmongering might be useful for a politician looking to rally the faithful before hitting the campaign trail, but it represents no serious attempt to engage, in Yukon’s own small way, with the fundamental economic and environmental question of our time.

Contact Chris Windeyer at editor@yukon-news.com

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