NDP Leader Jack Layton launched a vehement campaign against carbon taxes yesterday and was quickly accused of alarmist pandering by prominent Canadian environmentalists.
Speaking to a fundraiser for an Ottawa homeless shelter, Mr. Layton said carbon taxes would raise home heating costs and hurt Canadians living on the margins. He said big corporations should bear the lion's share of Canada's climate-change tab and a federal ombudsman should ensure those costs aren't passed on to consumers.
"With energy costs soaring in Canada, we've got to ensure that the solutions to climate change don't aggravate an already dire situation for those who struggle to make ends meet," Mr. Layton said.
He said he supports a cap-and-trade system, which imposes penalties on industrial emissions above a certain level, or cap. Liberals, meanwhile, are preparing to announce a plan built around carbon taxes, which is expected to apply to a wider range of emissions and raise money for environmental efforts.
"Those advocating a carbon tax suggest that by making the cost of certain things more expensive people will make different choices, but Canada is a cold place and heating your home really isn't a choice," Mr. Layton said. "We shouldn't punish people, and that's what a carbon tax does."
Mr. Layton's comments are clearly aimed at distancing the NDP from the Liberals before party Leader Stéphane Dion releases his latest environmental plan. They also come as some in the party have urged Mr. Layton to spend more time raising issues of poverty and homelessness.
Environmentalist Stephen Hazell, executive director of Sierra Club Canada, said Mr. Layton's comments are regrettable because a strong climate-change plan would include cap-and-trade measures as well as carbon taxes.
"The carbon tax has a huge advantage over cap-and-trade in that it can be put in place very quickly and deliver results very quickly, whereas cap-and-trade, it's taken Europe decades to get that one figured out," he said. "It's just regrettable that he's focusing on the negative."
Mr. Hazell said there are ways to ensure low-income people receive assistance so they are not hurt by carbon taxes.
"It just seems a little bit like pandering to us," he said. "They're pandering to people who are afraid about rising gas prices, the folks who would typically support the NDP. But we think it's alarmist and it's not helpful."
Mr. Hazell's comments come on the heels of remarks from environmentalist David Suzuki, who told CTV's Question Period last Sunday that he was "shocked" by the NDP's opposition to a carbon tax.
"I thought that they had a very progressive environmental outlook," Mr. Suzuki said. "To oppose [the carbon tax plan] it's just nonsense. It's certainly the way we've got to go."
Yesterday, John Bennett of climateforchange.ca wrote immediately to Mr. Layton, saying he was at a loss to understand why the NDP is ruling out carbon taxes.
"We are hoping you won't follow the NDP in British Columbia and seek short-term political advantage by playing on the fears of people," he wrote.
But one environmentalist who has strongly advocated a carbon tax was willing to cut the NDP some slack yesterday. Beatrice Olivastri, CEO of Friends of the Earth Canada, said experts such as the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy are still debating and researching whether a carbon tax is ultimately the best measure.
"It's not categoric," she said of the debate over carbon taxes. "To me, it's distinguishing [the NDP]on machinery, certainly not on values. Because I happen to believe that all four parties, other than the Conservatives, hold a very high and important value for addressing global warming."