Why Christy Clark’s pause on carbon pricing makes sense

Three reasons why Christy Clark needn’t be panned for halting further increases in B.C.’s carbon tax until other provinces catch up

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark speaks about the province's climate action plan at the still under construction Carbon Capture and Conversion Institute, in Richmond, B.C., on Friday August 19, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark speaks about the province’s climate action plan at the still under construction Carbon Capture and Conversion Institute, in Richmond, B.C., on Friday August 19, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

History reveals that every revolution eventually turns on its own adherents, with varying degrees of violence. Radicals and zealots are never satisfied with anything less than permanent upheaval; anyone who advocates moderation or consensus soon comes to be seen as a traitor to the cause. If we accept that a carbon tax represents a revolution of sorts for Canada, this backlash against reason has already appeared in British Columbia.

B.C. was once the darling of the Canadian environmental movement. In 2008 it led the country—and all of North America—on climate change by instituting a comprehensive tax of $10 per tonne of carbon emissions. This tax was hiked annually until it hit $30/tonne in 2012, precipitating a noticeable decline in provincial emissions without causing dramatic economic hardship. (A $30 tax adds approximately seven cents to a litre of gas.) Environmentalists across the country sang B.C.’s praises and loudly demanded other provinces follow its lead. Those days are over.

Last week, B.C. Premier Christy Clark announced an update to her province’s climate change policy. Plenty of new measures are up for debate in this package, but the main issue is her decision to halt further increases in the provincial carbon tax. In doing so she disregarded an advisory panel’s recommendation that the tax be boosted by $10/tonne every year from 2018 until 2050, when it would hit $350/tonne. (Equivalent to about 80¢ per litre of gas.) With an election in the near future, Clark was clearly concerned about the political and practical ramifications of such a move.

For her caution, Clark received a furious blast from many of the same environmental groups that once lauded her province. “It’s irresponsible and unacceptable that our so-called leaders refuse to act,” groused the B.C.-based Wilderness Committee. Clean Energy Canada claimed “B.C.’s climate leadership has fizzled.” Well-known B.C. academic Mark Jaccard labelled Clark’s decision a “cynically ineffective” policy that is “taking cynicism to a new level.”

From the angry tone of her critics, you might think Clark had pulled B.C. off its perch as Canada’s climate change policy leader. Not so. B.C. still has the highest carbon tax in the country. Alberta won’t match B.C.’s $30/tonne carbon price until 2018. Quebec currently operates, and Ontario plans to join, a cap-and-trade system that prices carbon emissions at about $16/tonne. Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Atlantic provinces have no specific policies or prices. “We will consider raising the carbon tax as other provinces catch up,” Clark said, quite appropriately. And yet Canada’s reigning carbon tax champion is being treated by environmentalists as a counter-revolutionary. Only the show trial remains.

A few important public policy lessons fall out of B.C.’s recent experience. First, there is clearly no benefit to being a first mover on climate change. For all its accomplishments over the past eight years, the B.C. government is now condemned for allowing the rest of the country to equal its achievements. If soaking up praise from the environmental lobby is a goal, it seems better to be a follower rather than a leader—which explains why Ontario and Alberta are the new favourites among the notoriously fickle green crowd.

Second, the fury directed at Clark suggests most environmental groups are clueless about the political context of climate change. While B.C.’s $30/tonne carbon tax has had a significant impact on a few industries exposed to foreign competition, such as cement and agriculture, the fact the broader economy has not been brought to a standstill doesn’t mean the same will be true at $350/tonne. The province’s own budgetary analysis concludes that “increasing the carbon tax beyond the current $30 per tonne would have a stronger negative effect on economic growth.” No successful politician can ignore the economic implications of their actions, or the electorate’s ability to accept change. Carbon emission targets must always be balanced against other public policy obligations.

Finally, the demand that B.C. ratchet its carbon price far beyond other provinces’ efforts misses the bigger picture. The objective of a coherent national climate change policy should be a single, consistent price across the entire country. Massive differences in tax rates or cap-and-trade fees between provinces will create substantial economic damage by encouraging businesses and consumers to move around the country to take advantage of these variances. Widening the gap between B.C. and the rest of Canada is thus counter-productive to the interests of a national carbon plan. And with a federal-provincial conference on climate change coming this fall, it makes ample sense for B.C. to wait to see if Ottawa sets a floor price on carbon across the country, and at what level. Provincial convergence, not divergence, is the appropriate goal.

Having achieved what was once thought impossible in Canada—broad acceptance of carbon pricing—the revolutionaries of the environmental movement must learn to give credit where it’s due, and focus their attention on encouraging the laggards rather than attacking the leaders.


Why Christy Clark’s pause on carbon pricing makes sense

  1. Who exactly is funding these environmental groups and where is the funding coming from? Are they active in the US? Are they outraged at the amount of global carbon emissions we are creating through our consumption as a country v. Our emission via production? Unless they are stupid, they can figure out from our divergence in economic wellness figures compared to the US, that Canada has become a country that is not attractive to businesses. Why? Perhaps because we are taxing the crap out of everyone. This carbon tax is to reduce our less than 2 percent of global emissions world wide. Yet, we have no problem purchasing goods from countries that are terrible emitters globally and that practice horrific injustices against their own people like kidnapping them and removing their organs while they are still alive. We as a country don’t stand for anything when it comes to humanitarian rights. We don’t ensure that our own FN’s children live in places with clean water. We have that technology as evidenced by our own renown military DART team. We also have the ability to cut through the BS and provide decent education and decent housing via mobile homes on reserves as well as decent sewer systems. If we can airlift decent food overseas, we can airlift decent food to remote communities via our military. If we can provide healthcare in Haiti and other places, we can do so at home but what we cannot do, is let ourselves be offered up as sacrificial lambs to a cause that our sacrifice will make no difference to.

  2. BC’s carbon tax is a fraud because it exempts the LNG industry. One of those large LNG facilities emits massively more CO2, than a pipeline, which hardly emits anything.

    And no one will build one of those LNG plants if they have to pay the full carbon tax. (Ontario to using cap and trade instead of a tax, so it can hide and obscure which favored industry’s get exempted from having to pay for carbon permits).

    BC gets away with this hypocrisy because they oppose pipelines carrying oil from the oilsands.

    But the BS propaganda and lies about carbon pricing will continue, with the media a willing partner.

  3. This such propaganda. Firstly certain industries are exempt from the carbon tax. Secondly, since energy prices are relatively low, this is an ideal time to increase the carbon tax without adversely impacting consumers too much.

  4. “national energy policy”??? one should not hold their breath: even the basic notion of a national energy policy first needs to be established and broadly accepted – until now, promotion of western fossil fuel development has masqueraded as national energy policy and one major political party still assumes that fossil fuel is the sum total of energy. When one looks at the composition of the deceptively named National Energy Board and the expertise of NRCAN, it is obvious that they are ill equipped to deal with energy on a comprehensive basis; the NEB even proposes to eliminate Quebec exports of clean hydro electricity now worth billions per year (pipelines not power lines?). Realistically, one should not expect a functional comprehensive national energy policy anytime before 2035, if ever.
    A lot of the reasoning pervading this article misses the essential point that carbon taxes are intended to cause a reduction in fossil fuel use and replacement by other types of energy i.e. cost arguments that presume continued use at current or greater levels into the future are flawed and ignore basic economics. Also, carbon taxes are not a drain on the economy at least until they more than equal government subsidies and tax concessions to fossil fuels (according to WTO something like $42B CDN per year).

  5. The only problem with this “theory” is that Christy Clark is utterly incapable of doing the right thing, even by accident.

    Therefore, if Clark appears to us to be right about something, then it is our view of what is right that is seriously wrong.

    I’ve encountered this problem before. Some years ago, I thought Steve Harper had done something right. I later discovered that my view of right was wrong, and that Harper had indeed been wrong – not me.

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