#onpoli newsletter - The totally true story of carbon pricing’s plummeting popularity

How things have changed
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on Aug 20, 2019
Smoke stacks
According to Abacus Data, 82 per cent of respondents said climate change is a “serious” problem.

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Hello, #onpoli people,

I want to tell you a story. Like many great stories, it involves a tragic fall from grace. It’s not exactly Icarus flying too close to the sun, but the sun is involved.

Things were going great here in Canada for our main character. Let’s call them CP.  Everybody seemed to like CP, even former prime minister Stephen Harper — for a little while, at least.

British Columbia hired CP full time in 2008. Soon, other provinces followed. CP was hailed as having the solution to a civilization-destroying problem. CP was also achieving the near-impossible: bipartisan consensus.

Even the godfather of conservatism himself, Preston Manning, gave our main character a hearty pat on the back.

Man sitting on a stage.
Preston Manning at the Manning Networking Conference in 2015 (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

But things changed. Oh, how they changed. CP was soon no longer hailed as a hero, but accused of being a killer — a job-killer. A number of provinces that had enlisted our one-time hero now tried to banish CP from their borders.

It was a classic fall from grace. This autumn, CP will take centre stage in the upcoming federal election. CP’s fate may now be decided by you at the ballot box on October 21.

I’m of course talking about — big M. Night Shyamalan-like reveal here — carbon pricing. Carbon pricing is an approach meant to curb the emissions that cause global warming; it works by applying a cost to carbon pollution to incentivize polluters to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases they release into the atmosphere.

If carbon pricing were a person, they’d have had a rough few years. At this point in the movie, carbon pricing would be locked away in an apartment, bottles strewn everywhere, clutching an old framed picture of Stephen Harper, and smoking like an Ontario coal stack in 2013, lighting cigarette after cigarette with torn pages from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

So, what happened? 

It’s a tax, stupid, just like any other tax

We will definitely be covering carbon pricing in this upcoming season of the #onpoli podcast and I’d love to hear what you’d like to know about it. But, for now, let’s continue our story.

At face value, carbon pricing seems like something that conservatives would support.  As Manning said in 2017, the focus for conservatives should be “attacking the implementation rather than the market-based concept itself.” The devil would be in the details of what form it should take. For example, the money the government receives from a carbon tax should be revenue-neutral — meaning it would go back into the pockets of Canadians and, according to Manning, there should also be “a significant reduction in environmental regulations, and a no-subsidy policy with respect to alternative energy sources.”

That’s where a good old-fashioned left and right policy debate could take place. But, at its core, carbon pricing uses the market instead of regulations to solve a problem — something that obviously jibes with free-market conservative thinking. 

Heck, as Mark Cameron, once Harper’s policy director and the former executive director of Canadians for Clean Prosperity, pointed out in Season 1 of the #onpoli podcast,4 even conservative economist Friedrich Hayek advocated for a carbon price back in the 1970s:

“There's this great video of [Hayek talking to a] bearded hippie at Berkeley or Stanford,” he said, “talking about the need to put a price on pollution, that that's the best way to deal with externalities.” (For those of you not familiar with Hayek, he’s an intellectual darling for libertarian thinkers such as former American congressman Ron Paul.)

In that interview, Cameron offered an explanation for why he thinks conservatives oppose the carbon tax.

Pretty simple, right? It’s hard to sell Canadians, let alone conservatives, on a new tax. But it raises the question: if not a carbon tax, then what?

In a new national poll by Abacus Data, a whopping 82 per cent of respondents said climate change is a “serious” problem. Seventy-two per cent supported the idea of a Green New Deal that would tackle climate change and restructure the economy to support those affected.

That’s a topic we could explore on the podcast this season. We could look at federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s plan to reduce emissions; we could also explore the made-in-Ontario approach to climate change that Premier Doug Ford’s government favours. 

Was there ever really a consensus?

Maybe the consensus growing around carbon pricing was a mirage? Maybe it was a concept that conservative thinkers and politicians considered, but then rejected once they were faced with confronting voters with a new tax?

McGill University economist Chris Ragan, chair of the Ecofiscal Commission, which advocates for carbon pricing, was a guest on The Agenda last season. He said he did in fact see a consensus building until the middle of 2018.

It’s hard to argue with him.

There was a cap-and-trade system in place here in Ontario. Alberta introduced a carbon tax with built-in rebates. Manitoba designed a climate policy with carbon pricing at its core. In 2017, Patrick Brown’s Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario supported a carbon tax in its election platform, which was called the “People’s Guarantee.”

“And then,” Ragan said on The Agenda, “we have a federal government that said, ‘All right, we’re going to now fill in the gaps. And for any province or territory that doesn’t have one, we will put one in place — but we would actually prefer you to design your own.’”

So, as the calendar flipped to 2018, our main character “carbon pricing” is riding high after a series of victories and feeling pretty confident. But, like in any good story, you need a plot twist. The turning point in Ontario? When Patrick Brown stepped down as Ontario PC leader in early 2018.

You know the rest: Doug Ford won the leadership race, vowed to scrap the carbon tax, won a majority in the election, and made true on his promise to get rid of Ontario’s cap-and-trade system and to fight the federal carbon tax. Manitoba would soon follow in the fight against the federal government.

Both Manitoba and Ontario lost their respective provincial court cases but will present their arguments to the Supreme Court of Canada in January. (#onpoli’s John Michael McGrath has been following every twist and turn of this battle. I smell a good ol’ fashioned McGrath explainer.)

How will this story play out in October? Will it be a tragedy? Or a redemption tale?

As always, please write to us at onpolitics@tvo.org and tell us what you would like to know about carbon pricing. Or about the federal election in general.

That’s all for this week!

Eric
#onpoli producer 
 

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