Photo: Bill Selak/Flickr

The environmental agenda of the Trudeau government was based on the idea that the federal government could count on the provinces to take the lead. That idea blew out of the window with the June 7 election of the Ontario Conservative Party led by Doug Ford.

Without regard to the cost or the impact, Ford canceled the Ontario Cap and Trade scheme introduced by the previous Kathleen Wynne Liberal government and embedded in legal agreements with Quebec and California. Ford has cancelled green energy projects and pledged to reduce the modest provincial gas tax. 

Already the government of Saskatchewan had refused to play along with the carbon pricing Justin Trudeau was pushing as the policy to combat climate change while promoting economic growth.

The Trudeau government has a back-up plan. If a province does not have its own carbon pricing scheme in place as of September 1, the federal government will apply its own measures (equivalent to $20 per tonne of emissions) on January  1, 2019. 

Ottawa already collects excise taxes on the sale of motor fuel (along with alcohol and cigarettes). It can add heating fuel products to the list and increase the taxes.

Moreover, the Liberals will rebate some portion of carbon taxes paid, likely through income tax reductions for low-income Canadians, as happens in Alberta and B.C. where carbon tax regimes are in place. 

Nonetheless, rebates or not, Ontario and Saskatchewan governments are plotting a reference to the Supreme Court to question the legality of a federal carbon tax. The Ford Conservatives have budgeted $30 million for the legal fees.

The political reality is that the federal government does not need provincial consent or participation in order to price carbon or introduce a serious regulatory regime to limit greenhouse gas emissions, or for that matter to protect the environment in any other way.

The Ottawa Liberals were not keen to impose new heating fuel, and motor fuels taxes because it would give the Ottawa Conservative opposition, avowed opponents of carbon taxes, an opening to defeat them.

Trudeau preferred to have Rachel Notley bring in a carbon tax — and take the political heat — rather than do it himself. Ottawa was happy to have Quebec and Ontario introduce cap-and-trade mechanisms, promoted as an alternative to carbon taxes. 

Now with Ford leading the charge, and opposition parties in Alberta and Quebec poised to end existing carbon pricing if they are elected, Trudeau faces growing hostility from the provinces.

In run-up to the expected October 2019 election, Ottawa Conservatives plan to fan resentment to the Liberal carbon pricing provoked by “faux populist” provincial party indignation.

Carbon taxes are not a sure way of limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Imagine a room filled with smokers… and the resulting smoke. You could require payment from a smoker each time they wanted to light up. That would reduce smoke over time. Or, you could put up a No Smoking sign. 

The increased price of tobacco forced some people to break the habit, but regulations banning tobacco smoking from hotels, restaurants, bars, airplanes and terminals, offices, apartment buildings, and even public parks were instrumental in reducing cigarette sales, and tobacco dependency. 

Serious regulatory controls on the use of fossil fuels is more reliable method of protecting the planet than the consumer tax measures favoured by the petroleum companies, the big banks, and the Liberal party.

For a start Ottawa could end the subsidization of petroleum production, and plan a phase out of coal production.

The federal government could ban the internal combustion engine from city roads effective, say, 2030. Such a measure would focus consumer and industry attention on electric and hybrid vehicles. Coupled with investments in public transit, such regulatory initiatives would produce real results.

Ottawa has lots of potential allies in the fight against climate change. Instead, the government has alienated environmental activists across Canada, and angered Indigenous Nations with its commitment to expand export markets for raw Alberta bitumen.

Environmental issues are planetary. The federal government should be acting internationally to mobilize resources to renew carbon sinks such as the shrinking tropical forests, and to end the use of coal in producing energy.

The Ottawa role is to champion the environment, not follow along behind other levels of government. Did Trudeau need to see the environmental agenda of the Ontario Ford government to get that straight ? 

Visuals from Canadian Geographic  tell a story about environmental destruction, but specialists remain optimistic. Decisive action is what can make a difference. Enlightened political leadership from high office holders is overdue. 

Photo: Bill Selak/Flickr

Duncan Cameron

Duncan Cameron

Born in Victoria B.C. in 1944, Duncan now lives in Vancouver. Following graduation from the University of Alberta he joined the Department of Finance (Ottawa) in 1966 and was financial advisor to the...