Screw everybody: the Conservatives’ refusal to put a price on carbon

In June 2008 Canada's Liberal leader, Stephane Dion, revealed his party's carbon tax plan. The other parties responded according to their nature.

In June 2008 Canada’s Liberal leader, Stephane Dion, revealed his party’s carbon tax plan. The other parties responded according to their nature. The Green Party endorsed it, not surprisingly since their own plan was nearly identical, and agreed to cooperate with the Liberals in the upcoming election. The NDP skated away from the scary words “carbon tax” while introducing their own plan to put a price on carbon, called “cap-and-trade.” The Conservatives went on the attack.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper described the Dion plan as “like the national energy program” only worse because while “the national energy program was designed to screw the West” the carbon tax would “screw everybody.” To tax big carbon producers and use the revenue to reduce personal and corporate income tax would “recklessly harm the economy and the economic position of every Canadian family.”

In July of that same year, the government of British Columbia, often described as conservatives in Liberal clothing, adopted a carbon tax plan not unlike Dion’s. They too came under attack from their perceived ally, Harper, who scoffed at B.C.‘s claim that the tax would be revenue neutral – effectively calling then premier Gordon Campbell a liar.

Curiously, the 2008 federal Conservative campaign platform included a promise to “develop and implement a North American-wide cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases and air pollution.” The start date for that was 2012, but in the interim the Conservatives have changed their minds about cap-and-trade. Now, according to party spokesperson Fred Delorey, “A ‘price on carbon’ is a tax on carbon. That makes it a carbon tax,” and therefore an attack on the economy.

But a recent study of the effects of B.C.‘s carbon tax found the economy unscathed, and carbon consumption clearly reduced. According to Stewart Elgie, a professor of law and economics at University of Ottawa and the lead author of the study, during the years 2008 to 2012, B.C. used 19 per cent less petroleum than the national average, “a remarkably large difference.” At the same time, “B.C.‘s economy has slightly outperformed the rest of the country over the period that the carbon tax has been in place.”

No doubt there are points to be made on either side of the carbon tax versus cap-and-trade debate. Maybe, as the NDP asserts today and the Conservatives once believed, their system delivers better results in emissions reduction, but it’s hard to see how either party can continue to claim that a carbon tax either won’t work, or will have a devastating effect on the economy or on individual Canadians. According to Elgie, “B.C. has the lowest personal and corporate income tax rates in the country because of the carbon tax shift.”

Meanwhile, in 2013, Shanghai has recorded its highest temperature ever, unprecedented wildfires rage in California, crop-devouring tropical insects are creeping northward at a speed of three kilometres each year, and rapid glacier melt in Nepal threatens to cause a tsunami. The polar ice caps are melting, and the oceans are rising.

In short, the climate crisis has arrived. The beautiful summer we’ve enjoyed in the Yukon notwithstanding, global warming is making life miserable for people all over the world: drought in Texas, Nebraska, China and India, heat waves in Ontario and in Europe, catastrophic flooding in Alberta.

As for the future, according to the NASA Earth Observatory, “rising sea levels will erode coasts and cause more frequent coastal flooding. Some island nations will disappear” and “20-30 per cent of plant and animal species will be at risk of extinction.” In addition, “the reach of some infectious diseases, such as malaria, will change. More intense rains and hurricanes and rising sea levels will lead to more severe flooding and potential loss of property and life,” and “hotter summers and more frequent fires will lead to more cases of heat stroke and deaths.”

This is just a tiny part of the predicted cost of inaction on climate change. Some of it is here today, or coming soon no matter what we do, because we failed to act in the past. So what action has Canada’s Conservative government taken, in lieu of a price on carbon? They’ve promised regulations to control intensity of oil and gas emissions from the tarsands. Note the words “promised,” and “intensity.” Intensity-based targets mean no controls on overall emissions. Promises mean nothing at all.

There is no excuse for this kind of foot-dragging. Pick a carbon tax or pick a cap-and-trade system, but put a price on carbon emissions across Canada, and do it now. Stop prattling about the devastation this will wreak on the economy, it’s obviously not true. A 20 per cent reduction in emissions such as B.C. has achieved is by no means enough, but it’s a place to start. Isn’t it high time we made a start?

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.