If we don’t have an adult conversation about climate change and carbon pricing at the federal level this year, then when?
The void should not be filled by the provinces. It demands federal leadership.
But if there is timidity at the federal level right now, you can blame Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The Conservative attack chorus has had a number of negative impacts on political discourse in this country, but two are clear.
Just as neither Tom Mulcair nor Justin Trudeau will talk about running deficits — the Conservatives’ fanatic budget-balancing religion is now gospel here — neither opposition leader is anxious to take to the streets to talk about carbon pricing.
For the first half of this Harper majority, barely a day passed in the Commons without a government backbencher rising to decry the NDP’s job-killing, $21-billion “carbon tax,” a cap-and-trade proposal that, according to Conservatives, would cancel Christmas, blacken the summer sun and lead us down a path of ruination.
Sunday, in a campaign-style speech, Harper took a different tack in a message apparently aimed at Trudeau, saying, “You can’t help the middle class with a so-called carbon tax, which, as we all know, is a tax on everything.’’
It would merely reverse his cuts to the GST, the prime minister asserted.
All three leaders are also aware that in uncertain economic times, environmental concerns fall down a list of priorities for Canadian voters, so the current battleground revolves around middle-class pocketbook issues and our personal security at home.
Mulcair this week accused Trudeau of hoisting the white flag on carbon pricing, abdicating leadership and outsourcing the job to the provinces.
The NDP leader is not focusing on the environment, but he is not shying away, either. He told an economic audience in Ottawa on Tuesday that he would use revenues from carbon pricing to invest in what he says will be a $5-trillion global renewable energy market by 2030.
Trudeau raised questions last week when he said the provinces should implement carbon pricing policies. But the Liberal leader is expected to lay out a national carbon-price strategy in which he will attempt to lead on principles and targets, but acknowledge it cannot be a one-size-fits-all national approach. He will argue you cannot overlay the same policy on different provinces with different economies. And he would certainly be careful there are no echoes of a certain Ottawa dictate known as the National Energy Policy.
By spring, four provinces — British Columbia, Alberta, Quebec and (it is expected) Ontario, home to 86 per cent of the population — will have carbon-pricing programs in place or, in the case of Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, in the discussion and consultation phase. B.C. has a revenue-neutral carbon tax, Alberta a levy on companies that fall short of energy efficiency targets, and Ontario is expected to join Quebec in an international cap-and-trade program.
Trudeau will argue that the provinces will have to implement their own programs because the B.C. levy at the pump would not work in Alberta where the problem lies with high-end emitters. He will argue that the most significant emissions reduction move was the Ontario Liberals’ move to mothball coal-fired power plants.
Mulcair would institute a national program but will endeavour to get provincial buy-in.
Both opposition leaders will argue that Harper’s inaction on climate change is the prime driver behind his stalled pipeline and resource export plans.
Waiting for Harper to move on carbon pricing will be futile because there is no sign he is being pushed in that direction by his Conservative base.
He did, however, speak positively of the Alberta model in a year-end interview with the CBC, suggesting it was something “on which you could go broader.’’ As an international outlier, Harper must drop his insistence on continental action and move on some type of regulations against large greenhouse-gas emitters in the lead up to this year’s global climate summit in Paris. It will likely be more aspirational than substantive; a bid to move the issue off the table.
Provincial premiers are right now driving carbon pricing in this country and their meeting here on Friday could provide further impetus.
Wynne will also convene a summit of sub-national governments from the Americas this summer. Things are moving on this file, even though you’d scarcely know it in Ottawa.
The premiers deserve credit. But this should be a debate driven at the federal level.
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.