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Environmental policy sank Dion. Can Trudeau avoid his fate?

Liberal candidate Justin Trudeau, right, smiles as he listens to the Liberal’s then-leader Stephane Dion speak to the media following a luncheon speech in Montreal, Quebec, October 3, 2008.


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How long can Justin Trudeau rag the puck on climate policy?

The neophyte Liberal Leader will surely be given some time to settle in, and can't be expected to pronounce on detailed tax and regulatory proposals in the short term.

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But his Liberal Party has essentially been missing in action on climate policy since Stéphane Dion stumbled with his "Green Shift" carbon tax in the 2008 election.

Since then, the Liberals have joined the New Democrats and the Green Party in slamming the Conservative government's unambitious – at times seemingly hostile – approach to climate policy.

Along with the NDP, they had succeeded in passing the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act in 2007, which required the government to report on how it was planning to meet its Kyoto target. And Liberal MPs routinely slammed the government for ignoring legislation, and for eventually withdrawing from Kyoto.

But since 2008, they have never offered a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. While he can invoke the opposition prerogative to oppose rather than propose, Mr. Trudeau will have to enunciate a climate plan prior to the next election, if not much sooner.

During the leadership campaign, Mr. Trudeau said he favours putting a price on carbon – but that can mean a wide range of policies including economy-wide taxes, or emission caps or regulations for large polluters.

Will his Liberals favour a carbon tax, along the lines that Mr. Dion proposed and the British Columbia Liberals enacted? Or a system of legislated emission caps on industry and a mechanism to trade credits, as the New Democrats support? Or perhaps, the regulatory route to sets limits on large industrial polluters, an approach now favoured by the Harper government and by U.S. President Barack Obama in the absence of congressional support for anything more ambitious?

Mr. Trudeau may want to take in the session Wednesday on carbon pricing being organized by Canada 2020, a progressive Ottawa-based thinktank.

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In a paper prepared for the conference, Canada 2020's lead researcher, Diana Carney, suggests the Liberals may have learned the wrong lesson from Mr. Dion's defeat, which has led them to avoid any climate policy prescription. There were many reasons for Mr. Dion's election loss, though a complex and poorly communicated climate plan may have been part of it.

One way for Mr. Trudeau to differentiate a future Liberal plan from Mr. Dion's or from the NDP approach would be to embrace the principle of "revenue neutrality."

The Conservatives have attacked the NDP cap-and-trade proposal as a "tax on everything" because it would raise $21-billion a year to be distributed in various ways. Mr. Dion's plan was also a big revenue generator, while B.C. provided offsetting tax breaks to blunt opposition to its carbon levy.

The feared and inevitable Conservative attack could be blunted somewhat if a Liberal carbon tax proposal was strictly revenue-neutral, essentially replacing the federal portion of the Harmonized Sales Tax, or allowing for a significant reduction in personal income taxes.

And whatever his other strengths or weaknesses, Mr. Trudeau certainly appears to be a better salesman than the professorial and impatient Mr. Dion.

Shawn McCarthy covers energy and the environment from The Globe's Ottawa bureau.

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