Climate economist Mark Jaccard has some advice for Canadian voters looking to throw their support behind the best plan for reducing our national carbon footprint.
Beware bold targets that come with vague to non-existent details. The strongest policy isn’t necessarily the most ambitious; it’s the one that, measurably, will actually work.
“Unfortunately, our political process has a long history of tricking people with targets and not a verifiable plan to achieve them,” the Simon Fraser University professor said in an interview Wednesday.
“If climate is a priority for you as a voter, don’t vote for a party on the basis of its target; vote for it on the basis that independent experts can verify that its plan will achieve its target.”
Prof. Jaccard has subjected the leading parties’ climate platforms to just such an objective analysis, and his work has garnered attention in the campaign – especially the Liberals, who quite like his conclusions. When Justin Trudeau said in last week’s English-language debate that “the experts that have rated our plan on climate to be an A have rated [the NDP] plan to be an F,” he was talking about Prof. Jaccard’s research.
His findings, published this month in Policy Options (the Institute for Research on Public Policy’s online magazine), are based on applying mathematical modelling to the policies proposed by the parties in their platforms, to simulate what impact those policies will have on greenhouse gas emissions – and, importantly, at what cost in terms of impact on gross domestic product. In cases where the results indicate that the proposed measures are insufficient to meet a party’s stated GHG reduction target, Prof. Jaccard can see to what degree additional measures would be needed – such as higher carbon taxes or tighter emissions regulations – and at what economic cost.
The carbon-reduction targets themselves (50 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 for the NDP, 40 per cent for the Liberals, 30 per cent for the Conservatives) are not the focus of the assessment. If they were, the NDP would be the front-runner. The key is the execution – how the actual mix of carbon pricing and regulatory measures are likely to influence GHG emissions and economic performance.
“Citizens should focus on the carbon prices and regulations in each party’s policy package, because only these cause significant GHG reductions,” Prof. Jaccard’s paper says. “These influence the spending and investment decisions of households and firms, which dominate in our economy. Government spending can help us get through the transition. It cannot be the transition.”
He gives the Liberal plan – centred on a carbon price rising to $170 a tonne by 2030, with meaningful protections for exporting industries – a score of eight out of 10. The model indicates that the measures are sufficient to reach the party’s GHG target, and the cost is quite bearable: about a 2.5-per-cent drag on GDP, spread over the next nine years.
The Conservatives’ plan – with a smaller carbon price in pursuit of a lower GHG target, and an unusual twist of carbon savings accounts to return carbon taxes to consumers – garnered the next best score, a five. Prof. Jaccard believes the plan has a decent chance of achieving its goal, and its economic cost is modest, at about 2 per cent of GDP.
The NDP plan, on the other hand, is as disastrous as it is ambitious. It lacks critical details about carbon pricing measures, leaving a black hole at the core of its proposals. The party’s promise to lean heavily on industry to pay the bill for emissions – including export-dependent industries that face international competition that may not be forced to carry the same weight – translates into a much bigger economic cost. The model indicates that meeting the NDP’s plan would require a carbon price of more than double that of the Liberals, and the economic hit would be a whopping 6.5 per cent.
Prof. Jaccard gives the NDP plan a score just two out of 10, concluding that it’s “largely ineffective” and “unnecessarily costly.”
While the analysis has, obviously, made for campaign fodder, it also reflects an important step forward in the country’s approach to climate policy, at least for the two biggest parties contending to form the next government.
It’s notable that both the Liberals and the Conservatives themselves ran their climate plans through these same model simulations last spring before finalizing the plans in their election platforms. The two leading parties are now applying modelling and independent analysis to their climate plans in the same way as they would with the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s assessment of their budget plans. This sort of scientific rigour will better inform and measure future climate policy, regardless of the party in power.
For the NDP, this is a wake-up call. Having good intentions and noble principles on the climate file doesn’t cut it any more. Policy needs to be clear, practical and measurable. Its capacity to reach a stated target, and at what economic cost, must be transparent and measurable. These are the things that matter, and any plan that can’t deliver them is not a plan; it’s a wish.
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