Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](,dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a Liberal fundraising event in Markham, Ont., on Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

It seems like carbon taxes are on the ropes these days.

France’s “yellow vest” protests forced that country’s normally magisterial President Emmanuel Macron to back off a fuel-tax hike at the beginning of December.

Closer to home, voters in Washington state decisively rejected a carbon tax through a ballot initiative tied to November’s midterm elections.

Story continues below advertisement

Meanwhile, premiers from Fredericton to Regina are arrayed against the federal Liberal carbon-pricing scheme, while the Conservative Opposition in Ottawa sinks its teeth into the plan every chance it gets.

The political slog of selling carbon taxes is even starting to chill the feet of some otherwise supportive policy wonks. Writing in The Globe and Mail this month, the economist Mark Jaccard argued that even though carbon pricing may be the economically optimal way to fight climate change, there are good reasons why many politicians would prefer to focus on regulation.

Taxing carbon has proven a tough sell in some places. But it’s worth keeping in mind the virtues that made putting a price on emissions such an appealing idea.

There’s no painless way of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Taxing them is usually the most honest and least economically damaging way of inflicting that pain. Voters should be wary of leaders who say otherwise; there’s a good chance they either want to make you pay through the back door, or don’t care about climate change at all.

Some environmentalists and folks on the left prefer regulations to pricing. They call for requiring cars to be electric in the not-too-distant future (British Columbia recently set the drop-dead date for selling gas-guzzlers at 2040) and forcing gas plants to electrify (another recent B.C. initiative), either as a supplement to carbon taxes or an alternative to them.

And there is a role for smart regulations. Some, such as fuel-efficiency standards for new vehicles and bans on incandescent light bulbs, work like hidden taxes by outlawing cheap, but energy-hungry options. Rules that demand less wasteful consumer technology are a kind of sweet spot – the cost at the cash register can be offset by lower bills down the road.

But this kind of regulation has limitations. LED bulbs, for instance, will not get us under our Paris targets. Meanwhile, the Canadian auto supply chain is so entwined with that of the United States that our respective fuel standards have to be closely aligned – even if the United States freezes theirs, as the Trump administration recently did.

Story continues below advertisement

And effective regulations to bring down emissions are not free. They cost people serious money, whether as taxpayers, ratepayers or consumers. Ontario’s phase-out of coal-fired power plants was a really effective, really expensive carbon tax: it helped reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the energy sector by almost 20 per cent – but it also helped raise electricity rates by 70 per cent. Likewise, simply forcing people to drive Teslas and Nissan Leafs will either be really expensive for most drivers or really expensive for taxpayers if the government steps in with subsidies. It might a good idea; it’s definitely a kind of tax.

One emerging conservative alternative to carbon pricing is working with business to spur the development of green technology. What that usually means is taxpayers giving subsidies to business. A plan recently backed by Republican Senator John Barrasso extends tax credits to businesses that use “carbon capture” technology. Again, not necessarily a terrible idea, but hardly the fiscally innocent alternative to carbon taxes its proponents claim.

Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives aren’t even bothering to be backhanded: They say they will dish out $400-million on a “Carbon Trust” that will collaborate with industry on emissions cuts. They can rail against carbon pricing all they want; spending taxpayer money has the same effect on pocketbooks as asking consumers to pay more.

Of course, $400-million over four years isn’t much money. But there’s the rub: No one expects the PC plan to have much effect. With emissions, you can have expensive and effective, or cheap and toothless.

At least carbon taxes are transparently expensive. Critics say that’s the problem: Since people don’t like being taxed, we should do it secretly, through regulations. Voters should be clear-eyed about these options. The medicine will come in a spoon, with our mouths open wide, or it will be stirred into our drink while we’re looking the other way.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies