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Poilievre holds a press conference regarding his “Axe the Tax” message from the roof a parking garage in St. John’s on Oct.27, 2023.Paul Daly/The Canadian Press

Kevin Yin is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail and an economics doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley.

The carbon tax is the single most effective climate policy that Canada has. But the tax is also an important industrial strategy, one that bets correctly on the growing need for greener energy globally and the fact that upstart Canadian companies must rise to meet these needs.

That is why it is such a shame our leaders are sacrificing it for political gains.

The fact that carbon taxes address a key market failure in the energy industry – polluters are not incentivized to consider the broader societal costs of their pollution – is so well understood by economists that an undergraduate could explain its merits. Experts agree on the effectiveness of the policy for reducing emissions almost as much as they agree on climate change itself.

It is not just that pollution is bad for us. That a patchwork of policies supporting clean industries is proliferating across the United States, China and the European Union means that Canada needs its own hospitable ecosystem for clean-energy companies to set up shop and eventually compete abroad. The earlier we nurture such industries, the more benefits our energy and adjacent sectors can reap down the line.

But with high fixed costs of entry and non-negligible technological hurdles, domestic clean energy is still at a significant disadvantage relative to fossil fuels.

A nuclear energy company considering a reactor project in Canada, for example, must contend with the fact that the upfront investments are enormous, and they may not pay off for years, while incumbent oil and gas firms benefit from low fixed costs, faster economies of scale and established technology.

The carbon tax cannot address these problems on its own, but it does help level the playing field by encouraging demand and capital to flow toward where we need it most. Comparable policies like green subsidies are also useful, but second-best; they weaken the government’s balance sheet and in certain cases can even make emissions worse.

Unfortunately, these arguments hold little sway for Pierre Poilievre’s Conservatives, who called for a vote of no-confidence on the dubious basis that the carbon tax is driving the cost-of-living crisis. Nor is it of much consequence to provincial leaders, who have fought the federal government hard on implementing the tax.

Not only is this attack a misleading characterization of the tax’s impact, it is also a deeply political gambit. Most expected the vote to fail. Yet by centering the next election on the carbon tax debate, Mr. Poilievre is hedging against the possibility of a new Liberal candidate, one who lacks the Trudeau baggage but still holds the line on the tax.

With the reality of inflation, a housing crisis and a general atmosphere of Trudeau-exhaustion, Mr. Poilievre has plenty of ammunition for an election campaign that does not leave our climate and our clean industries at risk. The temptation to do what is popular is ever-present in politics. Leadership is knowing when not to.

Nor are the Liberals innocent on this front. The Trudeau government deserves credit for pushing the tax through in the first place, and for structuring it as revenue-neutral. But the government’s attempt to woo Atlantic voters with the heating oil exemption has eroded its credibility and opened a vulnerable flank for Conservative attacks.

Thus, Canadian businesses are faced with the possibility of a Conservative government which has promised to eliminate the tax altogether. This kind of uncertainty is a treacherous environment for nascent companies and existing companies on the precipice of investing billions of dollars in clean tech and processes, under the expectation that demand for their fossil fuel counterparts are being kept at bay.

The tax alone is not enough; the government and opposition need to show the private sector that it can be consistent about this new policy regime long enough for these green investments to pay off. Otherwise, innovation in these much-needed technologies will remain stagnant in Canada, and markets for clean energy will be dominated by our more forward-thinking competitors.

A carbon tax is not a panacea for our climate woes, but it is central to any attempt to protect a rapidly warming planet and to develop the right businesses for that future. We can only hope that the next generation of Canadian leaders will have a little more vision.

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