Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knows it. Most Canadians know it. And Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne and most of the premiers know it.
We need to put a serious price on carbon to do our bit to keep the Earth from getting too warm, and inflicting havoc on much of the planet in the form of melting ice caps, freakish weather, heat waves, droughts and floods.
So it’s discouraging that Trudeau and the premiers could not agree at their get-together in Vancouver this past week on a “pan-Canadian framework” to peg the price of carbon at $15 a tonne, $30 a tonne or some other modest but credible figure to deter fossil fuel consumption.
Instead, they punted the decision into the fuzzy future. Despite our heady pledges at the United Nations climate conference in Paris a few months ago, Canada will be going green no time soon.
Trudeau may put a sunny spin on the fact that the premiers all agreed “to include carbon pricing in our approach” to mitigating climate change. But what exactly that means, we won’t know for another year. It will be 2017 before a national plan is agreed and implemented. Until then “working groups” will beaver away in obscurity, trying to “identify options.” Great.
Blame this dilatory approach on Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Nova Scotia’s Stephen McNeil, the “carbon tax” spoilers. Neither was prepared to sign on to a national carbon price. They argue that their provinces’ hydro, gas and oil customers, industry and taxpayers are already footing the bill for efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.
But the same can be said of taxpayers in every province.
By failing to grasp the nettle in Vancouver the premiers have just put off the inevitable. Canadians will have to shoulder some real pain at the gas pumps and on energy bills if we want to breathe some life into Stephen Harper’s empty pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, and improve on that minimal commitment.
Indeed, Wynne and the premiers of Canada’s powerhouse provinces recognize that, and have already begun to price carbon. British Columbia has a revenue-neutral carbon tax of $30 a tonne. Quebec and Ontario have embraced cap-and-trade, an auction system that currently prices carbon at just under $18. And Alberta has a $20 tax and an emissions cap. That’s most of the nation’s economy.
To his credit, Trudeau went to Vancouver pushing for a consensus and promising to invest heavily in green technology and conservation, including public transit, cleaner energy and efficient buildings. It may have been a reach, but it was worth trying.
Certainly, Canadian industry is waiting for a clear pricing signal.
Whatever short-term political benefit holdout premiers may see in opposing a national carbon price, it’s a self-defeating stance. Their provinces risk being increasingly marginalized as the rest of the country pivots to a greener economy. They also risk losing out on federal financing for green infrastructure. And investors may be less willing to sink money into provinces that look like polluting rust belts as others clean up their act.
As Trudeau recognizes, Canadians have already made their choice, and are increasingly investing in what the World Bank regards as a smart bet on green technology, renewable energy, sustainable infrastructure and old-fashioned conservation, rather than oilsands, fracking and coal. Some peg the emerging green economy as a $5-trillion business opportunity, worldwide.
It’s a shame that Canada will fritter away another year instead of seizing on the sense of urgency in Paris and setting an ambitious carbon-cutting target, with the robust pricing to match. We all have a role to play. Sitting on the sidelines doesn’t cut it.