shifting behaviour

People are starting to sell their SUVs. For cheap. And they aren’t buying new ones. In the US, SUV sales fell 25 per cent in the first months…

People are starting to sell their SUVs. For cheap.

And they aren’t buying new ones.

In the US, SUV sales fell 25 per cent in the first months of this year. Since then, unofficial reports suggest sales have “fallen off a cliff,” according to a story on page 31.

This automotive green shift happened relatively quickly.

Why?

Because it is getting too expensive to fill these gas-guzzlers with fuel.

Historians will note the decline in popularity of SUVs mirrored oil prices crossing the $100-per-barrel threshold, which happened in January.

Which just proves the power of market economics.

That is, there is a price at which people will not change their ways. And at a given price they will.

And the cause of momentous societal change can be relatively small.

In the US, people were willing to drive SUVs at $1 a litre. When the price of a litre hit $1.11, they started selling them.

Canadians are more willing to take it on the chin.

Here, the shift happened somewhere between $1.20 and $1.35 a litre. But it still happened.

In Vancouver, bus use has skyrocketed.

People are buying smaller cars.

And they are dreaming up innovative ways to save money — carpooling, walking, biking, working from home, making fewer trips to the store … they are becoming more efficient.

Why?

Because it is costing people a lot of money to drive.

Which is the theory behind carbon taxes.

You tax behaviour you want to curb — making it more expensive. And you cut taxes on behaviour you want to foster.

And so, starting this month, BC Premier Gordon Campbell taxed fossil fuels. BC is the first North American jurisdiction to do so.

It has also cut taxes and offered credits in other areas, to promote investment and innovation.

Similarly, federal Liberal Leader Stephane Dion has proposed a national program to change Canadian energy use, which he dubbed the Green Shift.

It bolsters taxes on fossil fuels — except gas, which is already heavily taxed in Canada.

Like Campbell, Dion is balancing the tax hikes on pollution with tax breaks for low and middle-income Canadians.

High-income earners don’t get as much of a break. And that’s probably the right call because the wealthiest Canadians are also the most wasteful.

According to a recent study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the wealthiest 10 per cent of Canadians have an ecological footprint 66 times larger than the national average.

The goal of both these carbon tax plans — Campbell’s and Dion’s — is to put a price on pollution and, by doing so, change people’s behaviour.

There is a very good reason to do this — it is now clear humanity’s thoughtless use of fossil fuels is threatening life on the planet.

And long-established habits are hard to break. Unless there’s a cost.

So far, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has touted voluntary reductions.

They haven’t worked.

Canada’s energy use has continued to rise.

So Dion and Campbell will tax energy use.

And, if you look at driving habits, that clearly does work.

“We must do our part to fight the climate change crisis, not only to protect our beautiful country and our way of life, but to protect Earth itself and the millions of people around the world whose very lives are at risk,” said Dion, introducing his plan.

Carbon taxes aren’t perfect.

But they will force people and industry to think about how they heat their houses and factories, and encourage them to become more efficient and innovative.

Why?

Because if they don’t it will cost them money.

Of course, people are starting to whine about these carbon plans.

Why?

Because they don’t want to spend more money.

But, of course, that’s the point. (Richard Mostyn)