Scheer misses his opportunity to deliver proper climate change plan

Andrew Scheer is right when he says there are ways to fight climate change without imposing a carbon tax. Unfortunately, the Conservative leader hasn’t found them.

His climate change plan, recently released with much fanfare, is a mishmash of ideas — some good, some irrelevant, most ineffective.

Missing from the plan is any concrete notion of how Canada under a Conservative government would meet its Paris greenhouse-gas emission targets.

This is too bad, because in questioning the conventional wisdom around carbon taxes (or what its proponents call carbon pricing), Scheer was onto something.

Economists tend to love carbon pricing, because it uses market forces. Conservative thinkers, such as Reform Party founder Preston Manning, support it for the same reason.

They like the fact carbon pricing bypasses the heavy hand of government. It does not require, for instance, a ban on gas-guzzling SUVs. It merely makes explicit the real social costs of using fossil fuels to power them.

Once consumers are faced with the real cost of gassing up their vehicles, the theory goes, they will respond by driving less or by switching to some other form of transportation, such as electric cars.

Carbon pricing is neat, elegant and — in theory — the most efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Like other solutions beloved by economists, it assumes people have perfect information, act rationally and will adjust to the new price instantaneously and painlessly.

In the real world, however, people are not always so co-operative.

Even when government promises to rebate the proceeds of any carbon tax, they remain skeptical.

This is the anti-tax mood that Conservative politicians like Scheer and Ontario Premier Doug Ford have managed to exploit.

Yet opposition to carbon taxes need not mean giving up on the fight against global warming. As Mark Jaccard, a respected climate change economist at Simon Fraser University, has pointed out, there are other tools available.

Writing in the Globe and Mail last year, Jaccard said that what he called flexible regulation would work just as well, if not better.

He argued that in British Columbia, regulations requiring BC Hydro to close generating plants fuelled by coal and natural gas have proved to be three times more effective than the province’s famed carbon tax.

Similarly, he wrote, California regulations on electricity generation and automobile fuel account for the bulk of carbon-emission reductions in that state. Its cap-and-trade carbon pricing system accounts for only 15 per cent of reductions.

Had he wished, Scheer could have built on Jaccard’s critique to come up with a compelling alternative to the federal Liberal government’s carbon price strategy.

Alas, he did not.

Thomas Walkom is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.

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