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Editorials The ‘Green Shift’ bombed in 2008, but now it’s taking centre stage

The debate over how to confront climate change will have a starring role in this fall’s election campaign. That’s a major change in the mindset of voters.

A decade ago, green promises looked like a political dead end. Stéphane Dion, then Liberal Party leader, campaigned on his Green Shift plan in 2008, pairing carbon taxes with tax cuts. When the ballots were counted that October, and with the global economy in collapse, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives had won a minority and Mr. Dion’s Liberals had been reduced to only 26 per cent of the vote.

Four years ago, as the 2015 campaign got under way, the question of climate change was not among Canadians’ top priorities. An Angus Reid poll at the time showed the economy was the dominant issue, followed by health care. Nevertheless, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals won the election while promising carbon pricing, to be delivered in co-operation with the provinces. Talk of carbon taxes didn’t sink him as it had Mr. Dion.

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As we head into the 2019 election, a new Angus Reid poll conducted in August has found that environment and climate change are together seen as the top issue facing the country. They were cited by 33 per cent of people surveyed, ahead of health care at 20 per cent and the deficit at 15 per cent. The economy – with unemployment at record lows – comes in at 14 per cent.

A demarcation came a year ago, when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put out its most dire report yet and said the necessary response will require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

Soon after, calls emerged in the U.S. Congress for a massive investment in a Green New Deal and quickly moved from the edge of mainstream politics to the centre of debate, at least within the Democratic Party. Last week, the climate crisis was the lone issue in seven hours of town halls for 10 Democrats vying to be their party’s presidential nominee in 2020.

There’s a similarly high level of concern among most Canadians about climate change and the environment, but it’s tempered by other worries.

Angus Reid found that 69 per cent of people surveyed want climate change to be among the top priorities of whichever party forms the next government. But it also found that 58 per cent of those polled want oil and gas development to rank among the government’s top priorities. And not all those worried about climate change favour the carbon tax; it has 52-per-cent support.

Research published in August by the Public Policy Forum and McGill University found similar sentiments. Canadians are willing to pay to tackle climate change, but only so much. A carbon tax of 4.4 cents a litre at the gasoline pumps – the current level in Ontario – is tolerable to the majority of people, research shows.

But support drops as the price rises, with the scales currently tipping against the tax at 13 cents. (The Liberal carbon tax is scheduled to top out at 11 cents in Ontario in 2022.) In contrast, increased regulations and subsidies for renewable energy – which have costs that are less visible and hence deemed less painful – enjoy solid majority support.

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It reflects the pragmatic approach Canada has so far taken, one of striking a balance between environment and economy. The carbon tax, and lower carbon emissions, can live beside an expanded Trans Mountain pipeline. British Columbia shows a carbon tax (currently 8.9 cents a litre at the pump) can co-exist with a strong economy.

The carbon tax catches a lot of heat, sitting as it does at the centre of the Liberal plan, and as the focus of Conservative criticism of the Liberals. But it isn’t the only way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. There’s room for pairing it with smart regulations, from vehicle fuel standards to energy efficiency rules in building codes. Both pricing and regulation can spur innovation.

How Canada grapples with climate change will be at the top of the election agenda. In the United States, the Trump administration and many on the right reject climate science, but Canada’s Conservatives don’t use quite the same language. Federal Conservatives and their provincial cousins are trying to walk a fine line: They condemn carbon taxes but don’t outright question the fact that carbon emissions must be reduced.

Polls show that Canadian voters care about climate change more than ever. The question to be answered this fall is what they want the next government to do about it.

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