A carbon tax for us all

The stars seem to be aligning for an improved carbon tax in Alberta. Goodness knows, there’s plenty of room for improvement there. Alberta, you will recall, was the first jurisdiction in North America to institute a tax penalty for greenhouse gas pollution, back in 2007.

The stars seem to be aligning for an improved carbon tax in Alberta. Goodness knows, there’s plenty of room for improvement there.

Alberta, you will recall, was the first jurisdiction in North America to institute a tax penalty for greenhouse gas pollution, back in 2007. The tax was named by a committee that obviously stayed up way too late coming to agreement: it’s called the Specified Gas Emitters Regulation.

The financial penalty under SGER has been pretty mild, the funds it raised have been poorly used and there is no indication anywhere that it served to reduce either intensity or total greenhouse gas emissions in the province.

The specified polluters pay $15 a tonne for that part of their carbon pollution that exceeds a baseline. The polluters only pay for a maximum of 12 per cent of their total emissions, and one document I found said it only costs the companies $1.80 a tonne to meet the targets.

The money went into a tech fund that mostly paid for research to help energy companies improve their own oil and gas production. The tax improved the lives of zero Albertans — except for those who administered the program and accessed the money. Zero as well, for the environment.

Still, the philosophy behind the plan was sound.

Globally, about 80 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions are produced by consumers. We drive cars, we turn on our coffee makers in the morning, we heat our homes in the winter. Everything we do has a carbon footprint.

But the global numbers don’t apply in Alberta. Because of the energy intensity of Alberta’s heavy industry, our province produces a whopping 36 per cent of all the greenhouse gases produced in Canada. Our oilsands projects trump the influence of consumer emissions in our province, plus that of Ontario, or probably more.

That’s why Suncor CEO Steve Williams is on board with a new carbon tax for Alberta. That also influenced how Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently set a national goal for Canada to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent in 15 years.

Canada simply can’t become a better global citizen until we solve the problem of how to get those 168 billion barrels of oil out of the oilsands, using less energy.

Williams agrees to a carbon tax, but he wants it to be universal. He wants the consumers to be involved. That serves his purposes, because the vast majority of his customers burn Suncor’s oil outside of Canada.

The federal government’s plan is to help Suncor and all the other oilsands conglomerates buy carbon credits on the international market. No cap-and-trade for Canadians, no sir, no way — but globally, the Harper government makes it the cornerstone of our emissions reduction program. Go figure.

In the past, Albertans derided a carbon tax as merely a cash transfer from Alberta to the feds. Harper wants to go that one better — by transferring the money right out of Canada.

I say we need a hybrid of the plans.

Williams is right: consumers do need to know that what they do has a pollution price. In British Columbia, that price (their carbon tax) replaces part of their income tax system. Ride a bike to work, reduce your taxes. Lower the thermostat a bit in the winter, reduce your taxes. Waste less, reduce your taxes.

But that can’t be the total answer in Alberta. We could be pushing our bikes through deep snow (I’ve done it and it’s hard), and shivering in our homes all winter, and still not make a significant dent in Alberta’s total emissions, because of the oilsands.

Nobody can reasonably suggest we leave the oilsands in the ground. No country sitting on 168 billion barrels of crude would do that. None.

So if carbon credits need to be bought, why not buy them from me? OK, and you.

We appear to have consensus here, so tax both consumers and the big producers. Use the money to both reduce the burden of other taxes and to encourage more non-fossil energy sources. I can adapt my behaviour to fit the program.

But more, make it easy for me to put a few solar panels on my house and garage. Pay me the full market rate for all the solar power that I don’t use. Let the big power producers have a carbon credit from that, which they can sell.

The technology is improving rapidly for at-home storage of solar power and industrial-grade storage of wind power. There’s a huge potential for both total greenhouse gas reduction and carbon credits to offset Alberta’s unique burden from oilsands production.

I could live with that, could you? Isn’t that the philosophy behind what both Williams and Harper say they want? So if the consensus already exists for this, do it.

But let the consumers who want to become carbon conservers benefit — in cash, directly. That’s the only way the plan will actually work.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email greg.neiman.blog@gmail.com.

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