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Globe editorial: Cutting through the populist smoke on carbon taxes

Putting a price on carbon is an effective way of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and fighting climate change. There is ample, persuasive evidence of this.

And yet Canadians continue to be largely unaware of this fact, and now a growing number of politicians are playing on that lack of awareness as they try to roll back what they inaccurately deride as “job-killing carbon taxes.”

This is a critical issue. Carbon pricing is a market mechanism that induces people to cut their emissions by, say, buying a fuel-efficient car or turning down the thermostat. It accomplishes the same thing with companies that pollute by giving them a financial incentive to become greener.

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Conservatives like carbon pricing because it is less invasive than government regulation. As well, the levies raise revenue that can be returned to taxpayers in the form of lower income taxes or used to fund the development of new technologies.

The Ecofiscal Commission, a non-partisan group of economists that is a leading proponent of carbon pricing in Canada, examined three jurisdictions that have implemented various carbon-pricing schemes – British Columbia, the United Kingdom and California.

It found that per capita energy consumption dropped and growth in greenhouse-gas emissions slowed (in the U.K. and California, emissions have fallen). As well, the effect of these new measures on all three economies was negligible.

But this week the Ecofiscal Commission released a survey in which it found that, in three provinces where some form of carbon levy is currently in place – Ontario, Quebec and B.C. – well fewer than half of respondents knew the policy even existed, let alone understood it.

Only in Alberta is a majority engaged in the discussion. The fact that the leader of Alberta’s United Conservative Party, Jason Kenney, has made the NDP government’s retail carbon levy a marquee issue is a good part of the reason.

Mr. Kenney calls the levy on gasoline, diesel and heating and cooking fuels a “job-killing carbon tax.” He vows to repeal it but might impose a levy on industry polluters if he’s elected premier next year.

In Ontario, Progressive Conservative Party Leader Doug Ford is vowing to kill what he refers to as Ontario’s “carbon tax,” even though it’s in fact a cap-and-trade regime, if he becomes premier in the June provincial election. He isn’t offering anything to replace it.

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The findings in the Ecofiscal Commission’s online survey help explain why some politicians are successfully turning provincial elections into referendums on carbon pricing.

To start, Canadians have conflicting views about climate change. A large majority considers the environment a priority – but not as important as a dozen other priorities. As well, climate change is poorly understood: Four in 10 either don’t believe it is caused by humans or that it is reversible.

Despite that, 79 per cent of the Canadians surveyed (and 65 per cent of Albertans) said they would consider carbon pricing at least an acceptable idea, if not a good one – as long as it was uncomplicated, didn’t cost much or hurt jobs, wasn’t treated as a simple tax grab, and helped Canada transition away from carbon while still allowing it to exploit its fossil-fuel resources in the interim.

In other words, Canadians like carbon pricing when it does precisely what it is meant to do. But they tune out and focus on other priorities when carbon pricing is portrayed as either apocalyptically inadequate by environmentalists, or as costly, anti-oil and job-killing by populist politicians.

It’s all too easy to turn carbon pricing into a populist wedge issue, when in fact it is a sensible and centrist solution to a pressing issue. The problem is that its proponents in Canada are at risk of ceding the narrative to strident and extreme elements both pro and con.

The federal government is key to getting the discussion back on track. It must stay the course on its national carbon strategy, under which the feds will impose a $10 per tonne obligation later this year (rising to $50 in 2022) on jurisdictions that don’t come up with an equivalent policy.

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Ottawa should also remind Canadians that any money collected will be returned to the province from where it came.

More than anything, what Canada needs is for politicians who understand and believe in carbon pricing to defend it vigorously and fearlessly. It’s tough to do battle with populists who sloganize about “job-killing” carbon taxes. But they are wrong, and this is a fight worth winning.

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