The current carbon tax debate is important — it’s just not serious

29 March 2024
The current carbon tax debate is important — it’s just not serious

Thirty-five summers ago, the late Brian Mulroney opened the world conference on a changing atmosphere in Toronto. Its participants gathered there to discuss the existing threats of acid rain and ozone depletion. It was also one of the first major international conferences organized to discuss the emerging threat of global warming.

“It is with genuine pleasure that I welcome you to this historic conference,” Mulroney said. “Over 350 experts from over 40 countries, you are gathered here to address the global threat to the earth’s atmosphere.”

A few days later, the conference produced a statement that began with an alarming declaration: “Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war.”

Last summer, Canada experienced the worst wildfire season in its recorded history — a summer which saw more than 15 million hectares of forest burned. For a few days in June, Parliament itself was shrouded in smoke.

The skyline of Toronto in June of 2023, during Canada’s worst wildfire season on record. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)
Nine months later, the government operations committee of the House of Commons met to hear from Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, whose government is proudly defying the federal carbon-pricing law.

Officially, the meeting was being held to study a section of the main estimates — the initial spending allocations the government lays before Parliament each spring — for a dozen federal agencies and departments. Moe was not there to talk about any of that. Instead, he appeared by remote video so he could restate his opposition to the federal carbon tax.

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Moe, along with a few other premiers, had written recently to the House finance committee requesting time. They apparently received no response. So the chair of the government operations committee, Conservative MP Kelly McCauley, apparently made a unilateral decision to schedule a meeting and invite Moe, along with New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs and Alberta Premier Danielle Smith.

It’s probably not a coincidence that McCauley extended these odd invitations in the midst of his own party’s “axe the tax” campaign.

“I think this is an important conversation for each of us as elected members,” Moe said after the Liberal and Bloc Quebecois members of the committee spent nearly 20 minutes questioning why they were there.

There are important issues to discuss, no doubt. Whether they’re being discussed with any seriousness is another matter entirely.

Three premiers state their case

Moe’s views on the carbon tax — and various other federal climate policies — are long-standing and well known. But Wednesday’s meeting offered another opportunity to consider them at length.

Near the end of his opening remarks, the premier said the carbon tax is “showing no measurable impact when it comes to reducing emissions.” In fact, the Canadian Climate Institute now estimates that in 2030, the consumer fuel charge will be responsible for reducing annual emissions by somewhere between 19 and 22 megatonnes.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe appeared during a meeting of the federal standing committee on government operations and estimates Wednesday. He called for the federal government to pause the coming increase in the carbon tax.

To put that in perspective, that’s roughly equivalent to the total emissions produced in the province of Manitoba in 2021. And if Manitoba disappeared tomorrow, its absence probably would be noticed.

Insisting there was “another way,” Moe then referred to Article 6 of the Paris climate accord and suggested Canada could somehow get credit for exporting clean technologies to other countries.

A day later, Higgs and Smith put forward similar ideas — arguing that if Canada exported more natural gas, it might be used to displace dirtier coal power in other countries.

Premier Blaine Higgs, testifying at federal committee about the carbon tax hike — which he opposes — made a push for exporting LNG to Europe, saying there’s increasing demand for the liquified natural gas in countries like the Czech Republic.
The actual feasibility of Moe’s theory is debatable — another country would have to agree to let Canada claim full or partial credit for any emissions reductions achieved in that country. Regardless, hoping to take credit for lower emissions in other countries doesn’t actually answer the question of how Canada is going to reduce its own emissions. And while natural gas might be cleaner than coal, it’s not clean energy.

While the premiers were testifying this week, more than 300 Canadian economists were signing an open letter expressing support for carbon pricing and challenging some of the arguments made against the existing policy. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre dismissed the letter out of hand on Wednesday.

“Common sense Conservatives will listen to the common sense of the common people, not Justin Trudeau’s so-called ‘experts,'” a spokesperson for Poilievre told the Canadian Press.

It’s not obvious why the nation’s economists would be considered beholden to the prime minister. Those who signed the letter are associated with numerous universities across the country. Several work at the University of Calgary, Poilievre’s alma mater.

What a serious debate would look like

Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 were 8.4 per cent lower than they were in 2005 — the base year against which Canada’s current 2030 target is measured. And Higgs’ province can at least claim to be ahead of the curve — emissions in New Brunswick were down 39 per cent in 2021.

In Saskatchewan, emissions were just one per cent lower. Alberta’s emissions were 8.6 per cent higher. Neither province has an overall emissions target for 2030.

The open forums hosted by McCauley this week also offered a reminder that the complaints about federal climate policy are not limited to the carbon tax. Smith objects to the Liberal government’s proposed cap on oil and gas emissions, the clean electricity regulations now being developed and the sales targets for zero-emission vehicles. Moe and Higgs aren’t fond of the federal government’s clean fuel regulations.

But it remains unclear what exactly the premiers and the federal Conservative leader would have Canada do instead to reduce emissions and meet those international commitments. There’s no way to reduce emissions without any cost or inconvenience.

A man and a dog sit on a bench in Calgary as wildfire smoke blankets the city in May 2023. (James Young/CBC)
With the premiers apparently so eager to discuss climate policy, it’s tempting to wonder what might be clarified and accomplished if they were all invited to Ottawa for a televised meeting — with the expectation that they would arrive with a fully costed and independently analyzed plan for how their province would reduce its emissions in line with Canada’s national targets.

As the Climate Institute noted last fall, current provincial targets add up to less than half of the national target for 2030.

In the meantime, there’s nothing stopping Poilievre from submitting his own climate plan to the parliamentary budget officer for a study of its economic and fiscal impacts before sending it to a private firm to project its emissions reductions.

At that point, there might actually be a serious debate.

A few months from now, some Canadian city might find itself blanketed in smoke, its residents forced to breathe in the acrid air or hide indoors. It’s now too late to prevent some of the disasters that were predicted decades ago.

But if this country’s political leaders were by then engaged in a serious conversation about an unquestionably important issue, it might offer some solace.

Source: cbc

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