Carbon tax not the solution

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"British Columbia's greenhouse gas emissions are now estimated to be 35 percent higher than in 1990. The rate of atmospheric warming over the last 50 years is faster than at any time in the past 1,000 years. The science is clear. It leaves no room for procrastination. Global warming is real.

We will act to stem its growth and minimize the impacts already unleashed. The more timid our response is, the harsher the consequences will be. If we fail to act aggressively and shoulder our responsibility, we know what our children can expect - shrinking glaciers and snow packs, drying lakes and streams, and changes it the ocean's chemistry. Our wildlife, plant life, and ocean life will all be hurt in ways we cannot know and dare not imagine. We do know this - what each of us does matters. What everyone does matters."

The above is from the BC Speech from the Throne, delivered on February 13, 2007. It's a nice statement on one of the biggest problems facing us at this time in history. But can we take the government seriously, or is this just yet one more warm and fuzzy pronouncement meant to placate the rabble, with no intent of really doing anything serious? In 2008, in line with this statement, the government brought in a carbon tax to make it look like they were actually moving forward on the issue.

University of Victoria professor Andrew Weaver, and Simon Fraser University professor Mark Jaccard seem to think that the move by the government is a positive one. They believe that raising the cost of carbon will start the process of reduced consumption. The Sierra Club and some other environmental organizations seem to agree. What they all have in common is the belief that the marketplace is the tool to use to bring our climate problem under control. This is consistent with the radical conservative view that came to dominate much of the latter half of the past century. One that holds that the market is the best decider of economic activity, and, by extension, social policy.

Scientists should know better, and certain environmentalists should be ashamed. Using market regulation as the primary tool to effect social and economic change both favours the wealthy and provides no certainty that much of the desired change will be accomplished. This is particularly true if policy makers pursue what they call a "revenue neutral" approach in applying taxes where the cost of increased taxes on carbon are offset by reducing taxes elsewhere.

The government's carbon tax is a case in point. There are no guarantees that raising the cost of fuel will significantly reduce its consumption, and even less guarantee when raising that cost is offset by reducing other taxes, and as in the present case by giving everyone a rebate to compensate in part for the raise. Those with ample resources will continue to waste carbon as usual. Those without are welcome to suffer.

This tax also fails because it is applied at the point of consumption rather than at the point of extraction. It does nothing to raise the cost of emissions being created in other countries or provinces that import fossil fuels from British Columbia.

The environmental cost of cleaning up should certainly be factored into the cost of any activity that creates carbon emissions or other environmental damage, but in today's world where there is so much damage already that must be repaired increased costs such as a tax will only serve to slow down the destruction. It certainly won't repair it. Carbon taxes should only be considered as a secondary part of any policy to deal effectively with the environmental crisis.

An effective policy dealing with carbon emissions would set strict caps on the amount of emissions that can be produced, caps that would soon take us to the level of 80 percent reduction that scientists are telling us that we must reach. And, to make those reductions fair, a rationing system should be implemented to ensure that everyone, not just the wealthy, get a fair share of the energy available to sustain their life.

An effective policy would also recognize that revenue neutral solutions are a fantasy. Our economy for centuries has exploited the environment to subsidize economic activity. Calculated into any plan to correct our environmental crisis must include a pay back of those subsidies, and that payback can only come from either increased revenue or a massive decrease in funding for other items such as healthcare, education, defence and so on.

Dealing with carbon emissions alone, however, does not address the root of our environmental crisis. The main reason that we have too many carbon emissions in the first place is not the way that we do things so much as it is how much we are doing. Demographic and economic growth on a global scale that has resulted in gross over-consumption is the root of our problem.

One measure used to determine our impact on the planet is the global hectare, or gha. In 2003 the number of gha on the planet divided by the population gave us a figure of 1.8 gha per person available on a sustainable basis. Consuming the product of more than that would mean that the planet is eating up its seed stock and reducing its ability to support life. In 2003 the average consumption on the planet was 2.2gha. The average Canadian consumed 7.6gha, the average American 9.6gha. To those who can do math, the implication is obvious.

Without addressing the issue of increasing populations and economic growth, carbon taxes are a waste of time.

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