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opinion

When Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer released his greenhouse gas reduction plan last month, it was rightly criticized as thin and vague. As of this week, it’s a whole lot thinner.

On July 8, Mr. Scheer sent Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a letter accusing the Liberal Leader of imposing a “secret fuel tax.” As every Canadian by now knows, the centerpiece of the Conservative election platform is opposition to the federal carbon tax, or any carbon tax, anywhere, ever, in this galaxy or any other. But Mr. Scheer’s letter wasn’t about that.

Instead, he attacked future plans for fuel standards, of a type Canada has long had. Beginning in 2022, Canadian refiners will have to create gasoline that is 10 to 12 per cent less carbon intensive, which in plain English means 10 to 12 per cent less polluting for each kilometre driven. Mr. Scheer claimed these regulations will eventually cost Canadian drivers 4 cents a litre. If elected, he pledged to scrap them.

All of which clarifies the Conservative environmental platform, and reveals it to be a seriously unserious plan.

The party’s opposition to carbon taxes is economically questionable, but one can at least grasp the political logic. Many voters, especially core Conservative ones, are unhappy about anything that pushes up the price of gasoline.

They’re unhappy even though the tax this year is just 4.4 cents a litre in the four provinces (soon to be five; hello Alberta) that have rejected the federal plan, and even though Ottawa is rebating nearly all the money back to taxpayers, such that most people will end up with more cash in their pockets, not less. Nevertheless, many voters, especially Conservatives, don’t like the carbon tax, and opposition to it has is now a sacrament of the Conservative faith.

But when Mr. Scheer unveiled his greenhouse gas plan last month, his pitch was not that he would do nothing about carbon emissions. On the contrary, he claimed that he would actually do more than the Liberals.

Yes, an analysis of the Conservative plan by EnviroEconomics says the Conservative blueprint will actually do less to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than the Liberal plan, will leave Canada further away from meeting its Paris Agreement targets and will cost more – but leave that aside for the moment. Mr. Scheer’s pitch was not that he would ignore climate change. It was that, if elected, he would actually go all in on fighting it, but with weapons other than carbon taxes.

Is it possible to lower carbon emissions without carbon taxes? Yes. It means more regulations or subsidies – which is what the Conservative platform relies on.

Canada’s progress on reducing pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions in particular, has been achieved through a mix of both approaches. In the front of the shop window are carbon taxes. They’re prominent and visible, and to work they must be. They’re about harnessing the power of the market, and millions of consumers, to lower emissions by showing people exactly how much pollution costs so that they will do their own cost-benefit analysis of how they can both save money and pollute less. In many cases, carbon taxes give the most bang for the buck.

But regulations can also have a big environmental impact. For example, car tailpipes today release only a fraction of the harmful chemicals they did in the 1960s. Progress came through regulations, not a tax on emissions of lead or sulfur dioxide.

But regulations are not free. Leaded gasoline was cheaper, and so were cars without catalytic converters. Somebody has to pay the cost of a regulation, just like they have to pay a tax. It’s just that the cost is hidden – or, you know, “secret.”

Mr. Scheer is now saying that regulations lowering greenhouse gas emissions from your car’s tailpipe are a “secret tax”, and hence unacceptable.

Let’s summarize: Conservatives don’t want to lower vehicle emissions by taxing consumers, nor do they want to impose unseen costs on consumers through regulations.

So what’s left? Prayer?

The party remains in favour of green consumer subsidies, such as its promise to spend $1.8-billion subsidizing homeowners who want to retrofit their houses to make them more energy efficient.

Say, friend, how would that $1.8-billion be paid for? Through taxes on Canadians, obviously. And that’s a secret Mr. Scheer would like you to keep to yourself.