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Premier’s carbon tax musings give free riders a free pass

On Friday, the premier released his most substantive push back to date against calls for any sort of carbon pricing in the Yukon.

On Friday, the premier released his most substantive push back to date against calls for any sort of carbon pricing in the Yukon.

The premier’s open letter acknowledges the seriousness of climate change and highlighted some of the initiatives his government has taken to reduce the territorial government’s carbon footprint, but again rejected carbon pricing as being part of the solution to the problem.

I had been hoping to hear a substantive rebuttal to the arguments made in the News’ July 22 editorial and elsewhere that there are any number of ways to make a carbon tax revenue neutral and did not necessarily mean “tak[ing] more money out of the wallets of Yukoners.”

Unfortunately, the premier did not engage with that argument and simply continued to take it as a given.

The premier and I are actually on the same page in a certain respect — there are few things that I would like to see less than the bloated, heavily bureaucratized Yukon government taking more money out of my wallet.

But let us say this again, carbon pricing does not need to mean increasing government revenues. It is not at all difficult for the government — any government — to legislate that every dollar collected from carbon pricing is returned to taxpayers one way or another.

Now it is time for a concession: for revenue-neutral carbon pricing to work it would mean that some taxpayers would pay more and some less.

And I would have been more interested to read an argument from the premier as to why there would be any sort of injustice in that.

It is certainly true, as the premier says, that we must continue to heat our homes, and transport our foods and other items great distances. And it is also true that there are no “easy choices or options” to make the carbon emissions caused by these activities to simply go away.

But let’s address the elephant in the room: The carbon footprints of all Yukoners are not equal and we do have choices. Some make a real effort to minimize their carbon footprint while some make little or none. Some invest in retrofits and efficient heating systems while others base their decisions solely on what is the cheapest option. Some consider a fuel efficiency when purchasing a vehicle, others do not.

So while it is true that we all must use some amount of fossil fuels, it is not as if we don’t have any options.

And there are and will continue to be social costs arising for our inaction on climate change. The premier himself cited the $2.04 million that it cost to repair the Ross River school – an expense he links to shifting grounds and implicitly to climate change. About $55 per Yukoner to fix just one school. The premier says that millions more have been spent on heaving highways.

Let us be clear: climate change will cost Yukoners one way or another.

Carbon pricing is about holding all of us responsible as individuals for the cost of our own actions. At the moment those who take steps to reduce their carbon footprint receive little reward while those with carbon intensive lifestyles pay very little. Yet the cost is borne by us all. If we accept that climate change will be a costly phenomenon there is a profound inequity in the status quo.

The premier goes on to say that a carbon pricing will not “miraculously alter Yukon’s carbon emissions.” No miracle is required. People are incredibly cost conscious creatures and it is a well established economic principle that people will avoid and seek alternatives to those things which are more expensive.

It is actually quite ironic to hear a conservative politician proclaim that a new “consumption tax” won’t affect consumption, after years of listening to how high income taxes are somehow a disincentive to work and investment. Suddenly those on the right, who have been so concerned about the impact taxes have on individual decision-making, don’t think they have any impact.

The premier states that “emissions from Yukon are not the cause of the world’s climate issues.” It is true that our emissions are trifling in the grand scheme of the world.

But this is a global problem and everyone needs to contribute to the solution. Any political jurisdiction can plausibly make the argument that it is too small in and of itself to make a difference if you draw the lines small enough.

Climate change laggards often point out that China, India and the United States contribute the bulk of the world’s emissions and look to them to take action first. But these are hardly indivisible political entities. Residents in the State of Wyoming or the City of Jinjang in China are also too small to fix the problem on their own.

Thankfully, when the world tackled the problem of ozone depletion by banning chlorofluorocarbons the discussion wasn’t sidetracked by thousands of small jurisdictions demanding they be exempt from the ban because their trifling contributions weren’t the cause of the problem.

The premier states that he “cannot support politicians from other parts of the country… imposing a national carbon tax on Yukoners”, but ironically fails to recognize that it is his opposition and (more significantly) that of Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall to carbon pricing that is driving the move towards a national system.

It is doubtful if every province and territory took its own concrete action that there would be much appetite for a national system.

If the premier wants to avoid a national system of carbon pricing, he should be more open to a “made-in-Yukon approach” that includes carbon pricing geared to our circumstances that goes beyond retrofitting government buildings and improving the efficiency fleet vehicles.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practices law in Whitehorse.