Opinion: Carbon pricing, the national divider

It’s now clear the Canadian debate over climate change and carbon pricing is serving no one’s interests. It was always idealistic, if not naive, to believe that the provinces and territories would fall in line to work with the federal government’s pan-Canadian approach to carbon pricing.

It may have been equally idealistic for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to believe he could trade a west coast pipeline expansion for Alberta’s support of this national approach. But where we are today was likely never sketched out on the darkest pages of the Liberal playbook.

The largest cloud of CO2 emissions in the country is hanging over the House of Commons where the governing Liberals are refusing to reveal even a ballpark price for consumers from its carbon pricing plan while the opposition Conservatives are pledging to do as much as the Liberals or better, without even bothering with a carbon tax.

The Conservative plan is so good that it must be kept under wraps, apparently, because while they scream demands for a Liberal price tag, they are mum on the details of their plan.

They are not alone, however. Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford and Alberta United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney, both potential premiers-in-waiting, are seeking power without bothering with a climate change plan. Jurisdictional battles, political threats, constitutional brinkmanship, court challenges, obfuscation, hyperbole and thinly-disguised attempts to shut down academic freedom of expression may sadly be an accepted part of our political landscape in 2018 but they all conspire to make Canadians the real losers on this issue.

The government plan at the heart of the debate calls for the taxing of greenhouse gas emissions starting at $20 per tonne at the beginning of next year, rising $10 a year to $50 a tonne in 2022.

Provinces unable or unwilling to craft programs to meet those targets will have them imposed on them by the federal government. As timid and as sluggish as the Liberal plan is, it has become a political lightning rod. Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau says carbon pricing will be revenue neutral and provinces can use revenue collected by Ottawa as they see fit.

Conservative critic Pierre Poilievre has repeatedly asked the government how much carbon pricing will cost the average household but Morneau says he can’t answer until all provinces finalize plans to meet federal standards in September.

It is politically expedient for Conservatives to call this a “tax grab” or a “slush fund or the “carbon tax cover-up” but without their own specifics, those shouts ring hollow.

In the Liberal defence, there are a host of variables at play before cost can be calculated with any nod to accuracy. One University of Calgary study by Jennifer Winter pegged the annual household cost at $50 per tonne as low as $603 in British Columbia and as high as $1,120 in Nova Scotia, but it does not factor in changes in consumer habits or government policies which could mitigate costs.

Kenney is the leading anti-carbon pricing flamethrower.

Over the past weekend, on the third anniversary of the historic election of New Democrat Rachel Notley as Alberta premier, the man who would replace her delivered a speech at his party’s convention that targeted anyone who opposes the free movement of Alberta bitumen.

He vowed to go to court to strip the charitable status from organizations which aim to block pipelines or keep Alberta bitumen in the ground and he threatened to turn off the taps to British Columbia as part of the Kinder Morgan pipeline fight “so maybe the B.C. Greens and New Democrats will understand that their economy is not fuelled by lithium crystals and pixie dust, but by Alberta oil.”

Meanwhile the federal Liberals will intervene in B.C.’s court challenge seeking to limit the amount of bitumen into the province as Kinder Morgan keeps the clock ticking on a May 31 deadline for some clarity on its Trans Mountain expansion.

This vicious polarization has even manifested itself in the reaction to the University of Alberta’s decision to confer an honorary degree on David Suzuki, a decision that has cost the university hundreds of thousands in donations. This country has time and again found a path to accommodation on issues that strain its fabric. This is one of those issues. But this time all we are getting are provincial firewalls, grenades and declarations of war.

Tim Harper is a freelance columnist based in Toronto.

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