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Supreme Court decision puts Canada on right track for carbon pricing

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Smoke from a factory chimney. Image credit: veeterzy/Unsplash

It should be evident that a national government has the authority to set policy regarding nationally important issues. But with the climate crisis, some provincial premiers have pushed back. Governments of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario have been fighting in court to overturn the federal Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act.

On March 25, in a significant victory for climate action, Canada's Supreme Court ruled in the federal government's favour. It affirmed that climate change, caused mainly by greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels, is "a threat of the highest order to the country, and indeed to the world" and that there is "broad consensus among expert international bodies that carbon pricing is a critical measure" to reduce emissions.

The ruling also stated, "A provincial failure to act directly threatens Canada as a whole," and "Canada would not be able to push for global action on climate change if provinces were not cooperating in the fight against it."

Although carbon pricing is one of many solutions to reduce the risks of climate disruption, it's a critical policy the David Suzuki Foundation has been advocating for since 1998. Represented by Ecojustice, the Foundation was an intervener in the court cases brought by the three provincial governments, arguing that the climate crisis represents a national emergency. It was also instrumental in getting B.C. to adopt carbon pricing in 2008.

Although this decision was specifically about carbon pricing, it signals that the federal government has the authority to enact national climate and clean energy regulations that reduce harmful emissions. It also sends a clear message to provincial governments that have put entrenched fossil fuel interests ahead of the well-being of our children, communities, future and all living species and ecosystems.

Under Canada's law, provinces are required to set their own carbon price through a tax or cap-and-trade system, meeting minimum standards set by Ottawa. If they don't, they're subject to a federal "backstop" carbon price, including a charge on gasoline and other fuels, offset by household rebates that leave most families better off, and a separate pricing system for heavy industries.

The minimum price is $40 per tonne of emissions as of April 1, set to increase to $170 per tonne by 2030 to meet the current target of reducing emissions at least 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Because greenhouse gas emissions, mainly carbon dioxide, cause extensive and costly harm, carbon pricing ensures polluters pay for damages. Even though it rarely reflects the full costs, it gives polluters incentives to find cleaner ways to operate -- reducing their costs and emissions. It also gives cleaner energy sources like solar and wind a growing price advantage over coal, oil and fracked methane.

Where carbon pricing has been enacted, it's been successful without causing economic harm.

It's time for all governments to join with industry, academia and all of society to resolve the climate emergency. As I recently told federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, we don't have time for bickering and drawn-out, costly court challenges. In fact, we need far more ambitious action from all levels of government, especially provincial.

We're still not on track to meet climate targets, and the costs of more frequent extreme weather events are mounting. Gas price fluctuations and increases imposed by the oil industry show it takes a lot to get people to adopt better habits and technologies, so making better options widely available is important. That means investing more in transit, electric vehicle charging infrastructure and measures to make homes and buildings more energy efficient.

We must also stop subsidizing the fossil fuel industry with tax breaks, low royalties and pipeline purchases.

Because we've failed to heed the warnings for so long, we've reached a critical point in the climate emergency. Now we must do all we can to prevent the crisis from accelerating. We need federal, provincial and municipal policies, regulations and investments to improve energy efficiency, fast-track clean power, electrify everything and switch to renewable fuels.

There's no shortage of solutions. We just need to employ those proven effective, including carbon pricing. The Supreme Court decision gives Canada the power to make a difference. Now it's time to act.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation. Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Writer and Editor Ian Hanington.          

Learn more at davidsuzuki.org.

Image credit: veeterzy/Unsplash

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