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Politics Well-Versed: The battle over taxing carbon and the war for the environment

Hey! It’s Samantha and Jack, the editors of Well-Versed. We’re happy that you’re joining us for the next six weeks. We’ll be with you right up until the federal election. Each week, we’ll break down a new political topic. This week, we’re getting you well-versed on carbon policies.

The realities of climate change will be a key issue during this election as it has become a national conversation. We’re seeing political moves like a partnership between former Ontario NDP leader and diplomat Stephen Lewis and long-time environmentalist David Suzuki, who have committed to persuading young Canadians that they have the power to make the environment the central election issue.

Well-Versed is The Globe and Mail’s twice-weekly newsletter that aims to jump-start your conversations about the 2019 federal election. Write to us about which issues you want to hear about and express your opinion on the policies and people we’ve examined. Go here to subscribe.

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The four main parties – the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP and Green Party – aren’t disputing the fact of climate change but differ wildly on how deeply we need to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, how those emissions should be cut and at what cost.

Let’s start with the basics: carbon taxes (also referred to generally as carbon pricing) are fees imposed on each tonne of emissions from fossil fuels. They’re meant to discourage Canadians from using an abundance of these fuels − think gasoline, diesel, coal-fired electricity and natural gases − in an attempt to lower greenhouse-gas emissions that affect the environment. Justin Trudeau has dubbed federal carbon pricing a critical part of Canada’s commitment to combating worldwide climate change. He introduced the pricing plan in 2018 with the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act, fulfilling a campaign promise he made in 2015. Ottawa’s goal is to reduce emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

There are social implications to carbon emissions. In the Act, the federal government writes that the effects of climate change “are already being felt throughout Canada and are impacting Canadians, in particular the Indigenous peoples of Canada, low-income citizens and northern, coastal and remote communities.”

Our colleagues in Ottawa have written a great primer on climate policies going into the election if you want to read further. Are you more of a visual learner? Check out The Globe’s two-minute video breakdown of carbon pricing and how it differs from other policies like cap-and-trade.

The concept of federally mandated carbon pricing doesn’t mean one across-the-board rule. Rather, Ottawa imposes regulations on provinces that do not have plans for carbon pricing that meet federal standards. The federal tax prices carbon at $20 a tonne, to rise to $50 in 2020. Ottawa has already taken the reins in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick, and will do so in Alberta starting in January, 2020.

Carbon pricing has by no means been smooth sailing, and political battles are being fought on both provincial and federal stages.

Canada’s resource economy is incredibly regional, and the conservative provinces against carbon taxes haven’t hesitated to bring their argument − that the federal imposition of carbon pricing is unconstitutional − to court. Though they’re all at different stages in the process to do so, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta are now co-ordinating their legal challenges.

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Once we officially begin the campaign, you can expect the parties to release comprehensive platforms with more details on carbon pricing and emissions, but here’s some of what we know so far:

  • If re-elected, the Liberals pledge to consult provinces, territories and interest groups to determine a carbon-pricing trajectory after 2022. They’ve set a target for 30 per cent of light-duty vehicles (read: cars and most trucks) sold in Canada to be zero-emissions by 2030, and 100 per cent by 2040, and have pledged to protect 17 per cent of land and freshwater and 10 per cent of marine and coastal areas by 2020. Coal-fired electricity – still relied upon by Alberta, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick as of 2018 – would be phased out by 2030 to ensure 90 per cent of Canadian electricity comes from sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases.
  • Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives have vowed to repeal the federal carbon tax and the planned Clean Fuel Standard (which would force fuel providers to lower greenhouse-gas emissions associated with their products), instead replacing it with standards for major industries that would prescribe yet-undefined emissions limits. The Conservative plan involves tax incentives and spending to support the development of technology that would allow consumers and industry to improve their energy efficiency as well reduce the carbon content of the fuels industry produces.
  • The NDP pledges to bring greenhouse-gas emissions 38 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 by first maintaining the pricing set by the Liberals from 2019 to 2022. However, the party will nix exemptions on trade-exposed industries, meaning that all industrial heavy-emitters will have to pay a carbon tax once their emissions exceed 70 per cent of the industry average. In addition, the NDP will limit tax rebates currently sent to all households to exclude millionaires. The party is also committing to a suite of aggressive timelines to disentangle society from fossil fuels. This includes ensuring that only zero-emissions vehicles are sold as new cars by 2040, that every new building built in Canada is net-zero energy ready by 2030, and setting a 2050 goal for the country to be powered exclusively by zero-emissions electricity. The NDP says it will establish a Canadian Climate Bank with a $3-billion fund for investments in the low-carbon economy and protect 30 per cent of land, freshwater and oceans by 2030.
  • The Green Party pledges to double Canada’s emissions reduction targets with a view to cutting greenhouse gases by 60 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. They say they’ll do this by maintaining a price on carbon and continue to raise it $10 per tonne annually. The party also says it will eliminate all fossil-fuel subsidies and ban fracking. Leader Elizabeth May also proposes dramatically changing the building, electricity and transportation sectors, much like the NDP, but on even tighter timelines. Pledges without a timeline include mandating a switch to bio-diesel for agricultural, fishing and forestry equipment; promoting the development of local, small-scale bio-diesel production; stopping the import of foreign oil; and investing in refineries in Canada so bitumen can be upgraded into gas, diesel and propane for the Canadian market. By 2050, the party says all Canadian bitumen would be used for the petrochemical industry, rather than for fuel.

Reporters Shawn McCarthy and Marieke Walsh describe the crux of the conflict like this: “Heading into the election campaign, the Liberals are defending their climate-change policies against those on the right who say the government is imposing too much of a cost burden, and those on the left who complain it is doing too little to ensure Canada does its part.”

This is only the shallow end: carbon policies are an introduction to a complex web of political and economic policy issues. Alberta’s oil industry, which makes up nearly 10 per cent of Canadian emissions, is demonstrably important to the Canadian economy, and thousands of present and potential jobs are at stake in the debate over whether to wind down or double down on Canada’s petroleum production. Some of the pipelines that could carry crude oil to export markets would wind through unceded Indigenous territory, bringing issues of land rights and reconciliation to the fore. Leaders of some Indigenous communities say Trudeau did not fulfill the government’s legal “duty to consult” them on the Trans Mountain pipeline, for example, and the issue is now in court.

So when leaders talk about carbon pricing and jobs in the oil patch, you need to know that it’s about so much more.

We want to hear what you have to say about this. E-mail Samantha and Jack at wellversed@globeandmail.com with your feedback – we’ll showcase a selection of responses in our newsletter this Thursday. No need to be long-winded, we just want your thoughts. Responses may be edited for length and clarity.

IN YOUR COMMUNITY

The continuing debate over plastic use and its impact on the environment is playing out federally, provincially and locally - and certainly not without conflicts. Victoria created a local bylaw in early 2018 that would fine businesses $100 if they distributed single-use plastic bags. However, the B.C. Court of Appeal struck it down in July of this year as being outside the city’s jurisdiction. The judges concluded that B.C.’s Environment Minister needs to sign off on bylaws that deal with environmental protection, whereas the mayor of Victoria has argued that waste management is a municipal responsibility. The ruling underscored the industry’s willingness to challenge plastic-bag bans, which are becoming increasingly common across the country.

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HEADLINERS

  • The federal New Democrats say it’s not true that 14 former provincial NDP candidates in New Brunswick switched their political allegiance to the Green Party this week.
  • Former cabinet minister Jane Philpott is standing by the pledge she made as a Liberal to support access to abortion, but accuses her former party of playing politics with a deeply personal issue.
  • Andrew Scheer says he won’t bar his MPs from raising the issue of abortion but will oppose any attempt to reopen the debate.
  • Jagmeet Singh addressed wearing a turban in a new party advertisement in Quebec − the province that made headlines earlier this summer for passing Bill 21, a law barring public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols (like turbans) in the workplace.
  • Justin Trudeau has decided to switch his senior campaign team around for the coming election, bringing chief of staff Katie Telford on the campaign plane while long-time adviser Gerald Butts will be stationed at party headquarters in Ottawa. In the past election, Telford oversaw party operations out of the Liberal war room, while Butts travelled for the duration of the campaign on the Liberal plane as the party’s top strategist

On Thursday, we’ll spotlight opinions from coast to coast. Have something to say, have a question or just want to chat? Drop us a line at wellversed@globeandmail.com.

If you’re a Globe subscriber, be sure to also sign up for our regular Politics Briefing newsletter, written every weekday by Ottawa assignment editor Chris Hannay. He will be ramping up his election coverage of all the big headlines and campaign trail news to keep you informed.

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