Trudeau goes bold on emissions; Scheer attacks, but has no plan

Trudeau in House of Commons.

The Trudeau government has taken the bull by the horns and imposed a carbon-pricing scheme on four provinces -- Manitoba, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Ontario -- which account for nearly half of Canada’s population.

Other provinces have their own mechanisms consistent with federal carbon-pricing targets. Ontario was one of those others until Doug Ford became premier and cancelled all measures designed to combat climate change. The result for Canada’s most populous province is a projected increase in carbon pollution, by the year 2030, equal to the emissions of 30 coal-fired electricity plants.

As Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promote their greenhouse-gas reduction plan, they point out that three of the cooperating provinces -- Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia -- are among the top economic performers in Canada. The Liberal message: putting a price on pollution does not kill jobs and growth. To the contrary, they say, taxing pollution actually creates good jobs.

This is a government that was elected on a pledge to focus like a laser on the economic well being of the middle class. And so, even as it takes steps to head off the global catastrophe a United Nations’ climate change panel so recently warned is imminent, the Trudeau government goes to great pains to emphasize its concern for ordinary families and their pocketbooks.

Government documents promoting its carbon-pricing measures offer few figures as to how much tax anyone will pay. What they emphasize is the need to prevent the huge and devastating damage climate change will bring, of which recent events like forest fires in B.C. and heat waves in Ontario and Quebec are mere harbingers.

The government does, on the other hand, go into great detail about the carbon-pricing rebates average families will receive, starting in the spring of 2019. Nearly three-quarters of Canadians, they say, will receive more money back than they will pay in increased fuel costs.

A two-tiered carbon-pricing system

The official opposition Conservatives claim to accept the science that tells us climate change is caused by humans. They even say they will, someday, tell Canadians their plan to reduce greenhouse gases. They are just not quite ready to make that announcement yet.

Instead of telling Canadians what they will do, Conservatives put all their energy into picking holes in the Liberal plan.

Their main line of attack is based on the fact that the government is imposing two types of carbon tax.

There is the levy of $20 per tonne of greenhouse gas, eventually rising to $50, on distributors of fossil fuels. Those distributors will, presumably, pass their increased costs on to consumers.

For large industrial emitters, there is a different mechanism, what they call an output-based carbon-pricing system.

What happens here is that the government sets an emissions limit for each industry. Companies that produce less than the limit pay no tax. Instead, they receive credits based on the difference between the limit and their emissions, which they can trade for cash with companies that produce more than their limit. Those latter companies will have a choice of paying $20 per tonne of emissions to the federal government, buying credits from other companies, implementing carbon offset measures (such as planting trees) – or undertaking a combination of all three.  

The Liberals add the important caveat that the entire package of measures aimed at industry is calibrated, in their words, to “minimize competitiveness risks for emissions-intensive, trade-exposed industrial facilities.”

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and his opposition colleagues have seized on that “minimize risks” part. They argue that the Liberals are giving an unfair special deal to large industrial polluters, while small businesses and ordinary Canadians will have to absorb the full brunt of increased fuel costs.

Conservatives hammers this message daily in the House.

On Wednesday, October 24, Scheer accused Trudeau of protecting “large corporate emitters by giving them a massive exemption from the costs that they will have to pay.” At the same time, he said, “small businesses who will face rising fuel and home-heating costs will have to bear the brunt of his new carbon tax plan.”

The Liberals do not bother answering this argument, which simplifies their complex carbon-pricing regime beyond recognition. Instead, they pillory the Conservatives for their refusal, since the time of the previous Harper government, to commit to any sort of climate-change measure.

As Trudeau put it on Wednesday:

“We are moving forward with putting a price on pollution … something the Conservatives were unwilling and unable to do for 10 years while in government…. They have no plan to approach the fight against climate.… They want to make pollution free again.”

A polarized campaign in 2019 could help Trudeau

The NDP and Greens both offer at least qualified support for the government’s most recent move.

The NDP successfully pushed for an emergency debate on the UN report on climate change, but has held its fire in the House on the most recent developments in the government’s carbon-pricing scheme.

When asked to comment, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh expressed concern over the more than $4 billion the Liberals paid for the Trans Mountain pipeline, suggesting that money could be better invested in alternative energy solutions. He also worried, in a general way, about the impact of carbon taxes on those least able to absorb the increased costs. He did not take issue with the principle of what the government is doing.

Green leader Elizabeth May was all for the most thorough solutions during the recent emergency debate in the House. Among other measures, she called for completely getting rid of internal combustion engines and ensuring energy efficiency and retrofits for every building. The carbon-pricing measures imposed on the four provinces might not be quite so radical, but May was still happy to give the Liberals at least a passing grade, while adding that there is “much more to be done.”

“Adequate carbon pricing is a start,” she said, “but we need to eliminate the use of fossil fuels altogether, especially in the production of electricity.”

When the Liberals last adopted a carbon-tax policy, they called it a “Green Shift.” That was a bit more than a decade ago when Stéphane Dion was leader. It did not work out at that time. The Harper Conservatives lambasted the Liberals for their “tax on everything” and won the 2008 election with an increased seat count.

This time, the Liberals hope public attitudes have changed.

Since they made a point of not changing the first-past-the-post electoral system, having solemnly promised to do so multiple times, Trudeau’s party also hopes a polarized campaign between those who want to save the planet and those who deny science will drive NDP and Green voters into their arms. The next election is a year away.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble's politics reporter.

Photo: Government of Canada

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