National Column: Carbon tax keeps Liberals ahead

by Chantal Hebert

With Green Party Leader Elizabeth May leading the charge, there will be no lack of Canadians disappointed by the Liberal decision to stick with Stephen Harper’s targets for reducing carbon emissions.

After all, to use a term that was dear to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in his days in opposition, he has the social licence not only to raise those targets but just as importantly to place part of the burden of mitigating climate change unto the shoulders of consumers.

According to an Abacus poll done last month, less than one third of Canadians oppose the introduction of a carbon tax as part of a larger climate change strategy. An overwhelming majority of non-Conservative voters support or could accept such a measure.

It is a rare tax that finds favour with a majority in the public especially on the heels of decade-long concerted federal effort to vilify the concept. According to Abacus, the rhetoric expended by Harper’s government on making a carbon levy politically toxic even fell on the deaf ears of almost four in 10 Conservative voters.

It is, of course, easier to support a tax in theory than to pay for it in practice. Still, the experience of British Columbia, where a carbon tax was introduced almost a decade ago, has been that the political cost of such a measure – at least initially – is not exorbitant.

So, given all of the above, is the Trudeau government missing out on a once-in-a-political-lifetime opportunity to go hard on carbon emissions? Not necessarily.

Canada has a long way to go to meet its international commitments on carbon emissions reduction. The existing targets are widely expected to fall short of the mark. But meeting them could still be a significant stretch.

It is hard to reach for the sky in the absence of a ladder.

The introduction of a national price on carbon is a crucial part of the building of a Canadian policy infrastructure sturdy enough to achieve steady progress on curbing carbon emissions. This is a policy for which governments will need public support for the long haul.

The popular consensus on carbon pricing was not born out of thin air. The fact that there is wide provincial support for the concept is an essential part of the mix.

In particular, the election of an NDP government in Alberta has altered the alignment of the stars.

It was not so long ago that the mention of a federal move to put a price on carbon was enough to send Alberta’s political class to the barricades in protest against a purported raid on the province’s energy resources reminiscent of the National Energy Program of a previous Trudeau era.

That was until NDP Premier Rachel Notley brought the province inside the tent. Like most other provinces including the three most populous ones, Alberta has put a price on carbon. But like its sister provinces of Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia, it is not looking to see that price increase precipitously in a sluggish economy.

Keeping Harper’s targets is not the same as sticking with the Conservatives’ climate change plan. By maintaining the existing targets, Trudeau’s Liberals maximize the chances that the transition to a national price on carbon (complete with an escalator clause) is relatively seamless.

Given a choice between setting goals that may or may not be attainable at a prohibitively high political (and economic) cost, or putting in place the conditions for meeting more ambitious ones on a consensual federal-provincial basis over time, the latter should logically take precedence.

A note in closing: consensual is not synonymous with unanimity. There will be some provincial pushback to an escalating national price on carbon, most notably from Saskatchewan. But in the House of Commons, the Trudeau government will not lack for cover both for keeping the existing targets for emissions reductions and for putting a national price on carbon.

The Conservatives had a decade to drive a stake through the heart of the concept of a carbon tax and it is still alive and kicking. They are now left to argue that their Liberal successors should not do what it takes to meet targets set by their former government.

As long as Notley remains on side with Trudeau’s approach, the federal New Democrats stand to be in a similarly awkward position. Calling for more stringent targets would put them on the wrong side of the party’s only provincial government.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

Print Friendly, PDF & Email