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Erin O'Toole addresses the crowd at a federal Conservative leadership forum in Halifax on Feb. 8, 2020.Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Ever since last fall’s election, the federal Conservatives have been under pressure to drop their opposition to carbon pricing – the test, increasingly, of whether they are serious about reducing Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions, especially in Ontario and Quebec.

The Conservatives’ failure to put forward a credible emissions-reduction plan – the party campaigned on repeal of the federal carbon tax, proposing in its place an array of subsidy and regulatory schemes that independent experts have calculated would actually increase total emissions relative to current policy – might have been popular with their Western, resource-producing base, but cost them vital support in areas of the country where they needed to pick up seats.

That dilemma has only grown more acute of late. A poll of potential Conservative voters in the 905 belt of suburbs around Toronto, released last week, found 28 per cent would be more likely to vote Conservative if the party had a credible climate plan; 63 per cent said they would not vote for a party that did not have one. Writing in Maclean’s, Conservative strategist Ken Boessenkool cited the poll as evidence that the party’s position on climate change has become the main obstacle to its election ambitions.

It may not even play as well in the West as it has. The withdrawal of Teck Resources’ Frontier oil sands mine application, and the reasons the company gave for it, has laid bare the frustration shared by many in the business community, not least in the oil patch, with the lack of political consensus on climate policy in general, and carbon pricing in particular.

Corporate Canada can see which way the world is going: countries without clear plans for reducing emissions are being penalized in global markets. More than that, they dislike being caught in the middle of political firefights. Carbon pricing is not only the simplest and cheapest way of signalling to producers and consumers where and how to cut their emissions. It’s also the least divisive. Businesses making decentralized decisions in response to market-based incentives are far less likely to become points of conflict than governments making centralized decisions in response to political incentives.

And yet Conservatives remain resistant to the idea. No candidate in the current leadership race has come out in favour of the carbon tax; they remember what happened to Michael Chong, who campaigned on it the last time. That’s not going to change. It’s human nature. People aren’t inclined to admit they were wrong, still less capitulate to their political opponents, no matter how much evidence accumulates, and people like me have to stop demanding they do so.

Or at least, we have to find a way to make it theirs. Many have noted the paradox of Conservative opposition to an idea that was first proposed by conservative thinkers. But at some point it was adopted by the left; rather than take the win, Conservatives reacted by turning on their own creation. The only way they can be brought back to it is by cleansing it of its Liberal and progressive taint. That means reinventing it as a distinctly conservative, and Conservative, policy.

Mr. Chong tried to do that by pairing it with deep cuts in income taxes. The lesson of his failure, in my view, is not to give up, but to go further: by folding carbon pricing into a larger portfolio of pro-growth and pro-development policies, using it as a sword not only to cut taxes, but to prune back the regulatory state.

Suppose Conservatives were to say they would support carbon pricing on the following conditions: that the government accept it is not going to meet its 2030 or 2050 targets for emissions reductions, and adopt a more realistic timetable; that it repeal or amend Bills C-48 (the tanker ban) and C-69 (the “No More Pipelines Act,” in Tory slang); that it abolish any current subsidy or regulatory scheme with a higher economic cost per tonne of emissions than the carbon tax, and refrain from introducing new ones; that it likewise refrain from overruling independent regulatory bodies when it comes to approving pipelines and other energy projects.

The Liberals aren’t likely to accept these conditions, of course. Fine: having used them to signal their defiance, the Tories could then adopt them as the basis of their own proposal. They might in this way strike their own balance, as they have not until now, between climate and the economy, distinct from the one the Liberals have attempted – one that relied on prices, rather than politics, to incorporate climate considerations into business decisions.

There is a lot to dislike in this scheme, for environmentalists. But it offers the best chance of getting Conservatives on board with the single most important policy for fighting climate change. That’s surely worth it, on balance.

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