When Justin Trudeau’s Liberals announced their plan to set a minimum national carbon price that each province would be expected to meet, they could take comfort in growing national and continental consensus on the need for climate-change action.
Back then, in 2016, Ontario and Quebec had recently joined with California to form a cap-and-trade carbon market. Alberta was already implementing a carbon tax under its new NDP government. U.S. President Barack Obama had introduced a range of regulations and incentives to curb emissions and his likely successor Hillary Clinton was poised to pick up where he left off.
Fewer than two years later, the Liberals are running into the political winds on this issue, rather than riding them. Doug Ford, the new Ontario Premier, successfully campaigned on pulling his province out of cap-and-trade, and is now doing just that. Alberta’s United Conservative Party, ahead in the polls heading into next year’s provincial election, vows to do likewise with the carbon tax. The White House is now occupied by someone who has scrapped Mr. Obama’s efforts and is actively encouraging carbon emissions, including by trying to revive the coal industry.
None of this is reason for Mr. Trudeau to abandon his commitment. On the contrary, it makes his government’s leadership on what should be considered one of humanity’s defining challenges – arresting man-made climate change that threatens the planet’s very future – all the more needed.
But it’s time to get more serious about selling Canadians on that need.
There has been an apparent complacency to the Liberals' communication on this file that has grown more curious as carbon-pricing opponents have demonstrated their ability to turn or rally voters against it. At a time when she could be devoting almost every available minute to convince Canadians of the need for the federal standards set to take effect at the start of next year, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna is already moving on to campaigning against plastic straws.
Either the Liberals are overconfident that voters will recognize they are on the right side of history, with little further justification of higher prices for gasoline and other goods required, or they believe that drawing lots of attention to their plan would only invite more backlash. Either way, they are at risk of allowing critics, notably the Official Opposition Conservatives, to define the strategy as a needless and punitive tax grab – and of those critics framing any changes, such as recently revealed tax measures to soften the blow for large emitters, as recognition that the entire plan is a bust.
Admittedly, the case against carbon pricing currently makes for easier politics than the one in favour. The U.S. retreat on climate policy has added to a common perception that reducing our relatively small carbon footprint (less than 2 per cent of the global total) is not worth the cost to consumers and potential competitive disadvantage for businesses. And Mr. Trudeau’s presentation of carbon pricing as licence to build infrastructure to get our oil to market has not been helped by delays in construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline.
But there are certainly arguments for Canada doing its part, or at least rebuttals to criticism, that the Liberals could be making more strongly and without the dismissive tone they sometimes adopt toward those they consider insufficiently enlightened on this subject.
At minimum, they should be emphasizing (and ensuring) that wherever Ottawa itself collects carbon taxes – which it is poised to do in provinces, including Ontario and Saskatchewan, that don’t have their own pricing in place – all revenues will be directly returned to taxpayers.
And they should be doing more to convince Canadians that we won’t suffer economically for imposing more ambitious standards than trading partners; perhaps even that, by taking a lead in transitioning to a low-emissions economy, Canada will create opportunities to export technologies and expertise to other countries (including China and India) seeking to do likewise.
Whatever its best arguments, Mr. Trudeau’s government has to recognize that it is in a debate even less settled than it appeared a couple of years ago.
Proving that it is possible to build consensus around carbon pricing might be the best chance for Canada to punch above its weight, by helping point the way for politicians elsewhere. But the Liberals should be more worried than they appear about instead providing another example of it being a political loser of a cause.