Canada was right to leave the Kyoto Protocol, rather than continue to take part in the false pretense that there is an international consensus. But the federal government should not just wait passively for a serious multilateral treaty to emerge, some year, some decade hence. Rather, it should consider adopting limited, moderate measures to reduce carbon emissions. Australia recently did as much, by enacting a carbon tax, which, by some accounts, was influenced by the similar tax that Gordon Campbell, the former premier, introduced in British Columbia in 2008.
In the Canadian election of 2008, Stéphane Dion, the Liberal leader, offered the voters of Canada – who are also known as the consumers of Canada – a clear choice. The people’s response was clear, too: Opposed. Mr. Dion’s program was called the Green Shift, making his emphasis very explicit. He proposed a carbon tax that could well have resulted in a major reduction of Canadian greenhouse-gas emissions. Because any sales tax is a heavy burden on earners of lower incomes, he tried to counterbalance that regressive effect by an impractically sweeping reshaping of the whole Canadian tax system.
Not only the Conservatives, but also Jack Layton and the ostensibly environmentalist New Democrats campaigned vigorously against the Green Shift; the latter claimed that Canadian consumers could somehow be spared the costs of their own climate policy.
In short, a thoroughgoing, root-and-branch climate policy is not sustainable. Yet Australia has opted for one way of trying to deal with carbon emissions, apparently influenced by B.C.’s half-measure that sails a course between opposing reefs: the fatalism of doing nothing, on one side, and the mild irritation of a levy that is noticeable, but does not provoke tax revolt, on the other. As of July 1, the carbon price on which the B.C. tax is based is $25 a tonne. The Australian price is very close to this: $23.81 in Canadian dollars.
This is not to say that a carbon tax is the best option for Canada. The federal government, like Australia, should look for a way to reduce emissions, to which Canada’s Arctic may be particularly vulnerable. A new tax is one instance of the measures that Canada should now explore.
Canada cannot act alone on the climate question to any great effect. It is right to hold out for an international agreement that includes large emitters such as China and India. But it should not merely wait and see whether a world of 175 countries can agree on a consistent, binding treaty. It should show some degree of leadership by example.