Yukon Chamber of Commerce hosts tug of war on carbon tax

The issue of a carbon tax, a recurring subject in this election campaign, came to a head during a lunch organized by the Yukon Chamber of Commerce Thursday.

The issue of a carbon tax, a recurring subject in this election campaign, came to a head during a lunch organized by the Yukon Chamber of Commerce Thursday.

The debate allowed for a deeper dive into the question than campaign rhetoric has offered so far, with presentations from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and a Yukon engineer who has looked into greenhouse gas emissions and carbon pricing.

B.C.’s carbon tax took centre stage during the event.

Paige MacPherson, the CTF’s Alberta director, slammed the B.C. government for using the money generated by the carbon tax for tax credits that only benefit part of the population, including the film industry.

She also said B.C.’s greenhouse gas emissions haven’t gone down since it was implemented. It hurts the economy, she said, and it doesn’t work.

But she also took a drastic stance on the issue, that no parties at the debate dared to follow her on: Yukon’s emissions are so small compared to China or India that “we won’t make a dent” in efforts to fight global warming.

That’s simply not an acceptable thing to say, the other presenter, Forest Pearson, said after the talk.

“That kind of speaking is socially and morally irresponsible,” he said.

Canada is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and the Yukon has the third highest income in the country.

“How did we get that way? Largely by dumping waste in the atmosphere,” he said.

He agreed with MacPherson that to some extent B.C.’s implementation of the tax was flawed. Citing figures from the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Pearson said B.C.’s tax credits mostly benefited high-income earners. But that’s fixable, he said.

The CCPA research largely attributes the tax’s failure to curb emissions to the growth of the natural gas industry.

The actual impact of a carbon tax on individual pocketbooks was also a subject of much debate.

MacPherson said it would cost as much as $2,500 per household.

The price tag is an estimate of how much a $50-per-tonne price would cost. The Trudeau government wants to start at $10 a tonne, increasing every year to reach $50 in 2022.

The CTF came up with the $2,500 number by dividing Canada’s total emissions by the population, then multiplying by the average household size of 2.5 people.

But that’s completely theoretical, Pearson said.

He said the CCPA’s numbers, which use B.C.’s carbon tax as a reference, showed the average family paid $386 in 2010 when the tax sat at $20 per tonne. At $50 per tonne the cost would be a little under $1,000 — far from the CTF’s numbers.

Yukon election candidates also got to weigh in, and mostly stuck to their talking points.

But Liberal Ranj Pillai offered something new: Liberal Leader Sandy Silver talked to federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna last week, he said, and she says there will be no avoiding carbon pricing.

“Once again we’ve been told there is no exemption coming,” he said.

Despite that, Currie Dixon, the Yukon Party’s campaign chair, insisted that if re-elected the party would fight the feds on the tax.

He pointed to the Yukon’s previous negotiations with the federal government: the 2003 health care funding talks, when premiers from the three territories walked out on the federal health minister before eventually returning and reaching an agreement.

Green Party Leader Frank de Jong emphasized the need to have taxes on activities that impact nature, but also the need to reduce income and business taxes.
“We’re punishing businesses for being successful,” he said about taxes on profits.

He agreed it should be called a fee, a point Pearson raised earlier, because it’s compensation for polluting.

The NDP’s Stu Clark talked about the party’s plan to use part of the carbon tax revenue to create a green energy investment fund.

On the topic of how much it would impact low-income families, Pearson said it would only take 13 per cent of the revenue to offset the tax’s effect on the lowest 40 per cent of earners.

There is a “double benefit” to the carbon tax, he said: On top of giving people an incentive to reduce their fuel consumption, it generates money that can be used to invest in green initiatives.

MacPherson cautioned business owners in attendance about the use of the term “revenue-neutral.”

That simply means the government gives back the same amount of money the tax generated – but not necessarily to everybody.

She complained that carbon pricing’s stated goal is to change behaviour. But in the North that’s not always a choice when it comes to trucking foods up the highway or driving, she said.

The debate ended up being a bit unequal because of the choice of presenters. MacPherson, a former Sun News Network TV host, is a public speaker. Pearson, on the other hand, is an engineer who got more technical but also more blunt — while reminding people he is no policy expert.

But both offered far more detail than the Yukon’s political parties have during the election campaign.

Still, Pearson said he was surprised by how much debate about carbon pricing there’s been during the campaign.

“It’s been made an issue by political parties and it’s been distracting us from key issues we should be looking at,” he said.

Contact Pierre Chauvin at pierre.chauvin@yukon-news.com

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