Canada’s federal government introduced a national carbon pricing plan on Monday as a prelude to signing the international Paris climate accord.
The plan, which goes into effect in 2018, begins with a $10 per tonne tax on carbon emissions in provinces that won’t yet have a pricing system in place. The price increases $10 a tonne each year, ending at $50 in 2022.
The nation’s four largest provinces already have some form of carbon pricing in effect – Alberta and B.C. with direct carbon taxes, and Ontario and Quebec with a more complex cap-and-trade system in conjunction with California – so the financial impact of Prime Minister Trudeau’s plan on most Canadians will be negligible.
Sounds like great news for environmentalists, right? The reality, as you may have anticipated, is more complicated, given the stakes at hand.
Though receptive to the idea of a national carbon pricing initiative, Green Party leader Elizabeth May says that is just a starting point.
“I commend the Trudeau administration for being first to implement a national carbon pricing plan, but $10/tonne is too low to be taken seriously,” May said in a statement. “I remain perplexed as to why this administration refuses to update our climate targets to meet our Paris Agreement commitments.”
The Saanich-Gulf Islands MP was especially critical of maintaining ex-prime minister Stephen Harper’s emissions targets, calling them “among the weakest in the industrialized world.” Harper pledged to cut emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
Dale Marshall of Environmental Defence Canada shares this sentiment.
“Trudeau’s planned pan-Canadian price on carbon emissions is welcome, but the planned price starts too low and takes too long to take a bite out of Canada’s emissions,” he said in a statement.
“To be effective, the federal carbon price needs to rise at the same rate beyond 2022. Polluters, not Canadians, must pay the costs of carbon emissions. Those costs will be paid one way or another, either through a price on carbon or through health impacts from air pollution and the impacts of more severe floods, droughts, and forest fires.”
Marshall also called on the government to stop promoting “high-energy carbon projects,” namely the recently-approved Pacific Northwest LNG pipeline.
Clare Demerse, Clean Energy Canada’s federal policy adviser, concurs. She told the Toronto Star that although the carbon pricing initiative is “significant,” it is ultimately “not enough … to close the gap” between the administration’s words and deeds on climate change.
The government will need to invest more in green jobs and infrastructure, said Demerse, if it is to have a hope of meeting even the previous government’s paltry targets.
Still, Trudeau’s carbon pricing system is a definite improvement, as it was the NDP, not the governing Liberals, who campaigned on a specific national system – cap-and-trade – for reducing carbon emissions in last year’s election. The Liberals had promised some form of carbon pricing that would be agreed upon with the provinces.
Speaking of the NDP and provinces, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley supports Trudeau’s plan, albeit under the contradictory condition that he agree to build more pipelines.
“The federal government needs to understand that Alberta — and Albertans, collectively and individually — have contributed over many years to the economic health of this country,” said Notley at an Edmonton press conference.
“For us to continue doing that, we need the federal government to now have our back. We need them to move on the matter of a pipeline to tidewater.”
Alberta is currently in dire straits financially, so in exchange for imposing its own provincial carbon tax, Notley promised to push hard to get a pipeline built and increase Alberta’s oil exports. These goals are naturally at odds.
Notley is in a tough position as the leader of a social democratic, environmentally conscious party in a traditionally conservative, oil-friendly province.
However, the plan’s most outspoken critic is the nation’s most popular climate change denier, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who opposes any form of carbon taxation.
Wall called the plan “one of the largest national tax increases in Canadian history” and vowed to fight it with “all options” at his disposal.
He also characterized the federal government’s unilateral action as “disrespectful,” though some would say his inaction on climate change is disrespectful to future generations.
Newfoundland Premier Dwight Ball and Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil joined Wall in his criticism of the plan, while B.C., Quebec and Ontario – the nation’s three largest provinces – endorsed it.
Overall, it appears that Canada’s federal energy policy will be the cause of larger tensions regarding national unity, as was the case under Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s premiership. But the prime minister is unable to take the threat of climate change seriously without alienating energy-dependent provinces to some extent.
Ultimately, Trudeau must pick a side.