Pros and cons of programs aimed at C02 emissions

Federal Environment minister Jim Prentice recently announced Canada’s intention to introduce a “cap and trade” system that would force industry to lower its emissions of carbon dioxide.

“In the long run every government is the exact symbol of its people, with their wisdom and unwisdom.” — Thomas Carlyle, 19th century Scottish historian

Federal Environment minister Jim Prentice recently announced Canada’s intention to introduce a “cap and trade” system that would force industry to lower its emissions of carbon dioxide.

This is a very welcome move, in that successive governments since the Brundtland Commission (1987) have done practically nothing about climate change.

Other notable government moves in recent years have been Gordon Campbell’s carbon tax in British Columbia and Ed Stelmach’s funding of carbon capture and storage here at home.

There are pro’s and con’s to all of these efforts. The cap and trade system allows governments to set a “cap” (ie, a limit) on total emissions of CO2, and then businesses are allowed to buy and sell permits among themselves.

If one business is unable to clean up its act, it can simply buy some permits from another business that is more efficient.

Over time, the government will lower the cap, and so businesses will need to become even more efficient or they will have to buy more permits – at an increasing cost per permit.

The disadvantage of this system is that someone has to monitor the amount of CO2 coming out of all the various smokestacks.

Business can do some of this itself, but in general, an army of auditors is needed.

Alberta’s focus on the magic bullet of carbon capture and storage involves having large industrial emitters pump CO2 underground.

It is a fairly well researched method, and the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Control) states that for a properly selected site, 99 per cent of the CO2 is likely to remain trapped for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The drawback is that the CO2 needs to be captured from huge, concentrated sources like refineries. It can’t be captured from a dispersed tar sands mining operation and it certainly can’t be captured from all of our vehicle tailpipes. So it will help a bit, but it’s no panacea.

So, given that Mr. Harper’s and Mr. Stelmach’s solutions both concentrate on large industrial emitters, we can gain some insight into their general political biases.

They both take care to ensure that there’s no immediate difficulty for the consumer driving his/her SUV a block away to the local convenience store to pick up some junk food and a DVD. Of course it’s an illusion, since the economic cost of either a cap and trade system or a carbon capture system will trickle down eventually. We will feel both of them in the pocketbook somehow. But at least Steve and Ed won’t have to utter the dreaded “T” word.

Gordon Campbell, on the other hand, has some backbone. And he knows that economists generally see a carbon tax as a useful adjunct to cap and trade, and even as a superior method, in that an entire bureaucracy of auditors don’t have to be hired to manage it.

Of course, the Libertarians among us cry foul at any mention of another tax. They are (sometimes justly) suspicious of large, unresponsive governments with their vast webs of control.

However, in answering their complaint, I would simply ask the question: is that the fault of a valid policy tool (ie, taxation), or is it the fault of a political and cultural system that subtly encourages us to vegetate in front of the TV, instead of becoming aware and getting active in the various levels of government that rule our future?

Taxation is a tool. And just like any other tool, it can be used to create or to destroy. It is our responsibility to ensure that our representatives use it wisely.

Evan Bedford is a local environmentalist. Direct comments, questions and suggestions to

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