Alex Paterson

Event Summary: Recasting the carbon debate in Ottawa

April 19, 2013

Apr.1720200167This was, by every measure, Canada 2020′s largest event to date.

This past Wednesday, over 500 people packed the Chateau Laurier’s ballroom, and hundreds tuned in online to watch ‘How to sell carbon pricing to Canadians’ – our call to re-cast the carbon pricing conversation in Canada.

And as luck would have it, our event couldn’t have been better timed: in the wake of Alberta Minister McQueen’s statement on a possible 40/40 carbon emissions reduction plan for that province, and President Obama’s signals that climate change will be a priority in his second term, new energy has been injected into the climate debate.

That afternoon in the House of Commons showed us exactly why a reboot on our carbon conversation is so desperately needed. Government and opposition MPs viciously attacked one another over what has been billed as a proposed ‘$21 Billion carbon tax’ – another attempt at conflating carbon pricing with putting a ‘tax on everything’. A fresh start is clearly needed, as our background paper ‘Why would Canadians buy carbon pricing?’ affirmed. Our packed house attests to the fact that Canadians are clearly ready.

To begin the move forward, Canada 2020 was honoured to be joined by one of our most diverse and respected panels to date:

  • The Honorable Jean Charest, current partner at McCarthy Tétrault LLP, former Premier of Quebec, and former federal cabinet minister including time spent as Minister of the Environment under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
  • Elizabeth May, M.P. and Leader of the Green Party of Canada, and former Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada.
  • Bob Inglis, current Executive Director of the Energy & Enterprise Initiative, former Republican Congressman for the state of South Carolina (4th District).
  • Eric Newell, Chair of the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation, former President and CEO of Syncrude, and former Chancellor of the University of Alberta.
  • Kathryn Harrison, Professor of Political Science from the University of British Columbia.

Our moderator, Don Newman (Chair of Canada 2020’s Advisor Board) set the parameters of the discussion, asking each of our panelists how we can re-establish a constructive debate about carbon in Canada; why Canadians have resisted carbon pricing thus far; would Canadians accept a new way forward now; and, if so, how far might they be willing to go?

The Honorable Jean Charest made clear that Canada would adopt a carbon price in the next 10 to 15 years – a timeline consistent with both the U.S. electoral cycle, as well as the internal pressures that he sees mounting at both the local and provincial level. M. Charest spoke about the opportunity for progress that is presenting itself right now, noting three important reasons why bold political leadership is important: 1) Obama has made the environment central to his second term in office 2) a carbon tax is now viewed as a sound fiscal tool and 3) China is also moving on this issue with an announcement it will implement a carbon tax.

Eric Newell gave an honest and frank assessment of industry’s need to step up to the plate on both demanding political action on carbon pricing, and compliance with current regulations. Mr. Newell pointed out that not a single oil patch CEO had come to him to complain about the SGER, Alberta’s carbon tax regime (the organization which he chairs, the Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation, takes funds raised under this system and invests in clean technology). A simple, clear price signal, said Mr. Newell, provides stability to markets and would reduce emissions.

Elizabeth May – the lone Green Party M.P. in the House of Commons – explained how and why Canada’s carbon debate has broken down over a series of electoral cycles. During this time we have moved from being a relatively green and progressive nation on the world stage to a carbon-heavy emitter with a growing record of withdrawal from international, legally-binding treaties. Ms. May believes that Canadians are primed and ready for a carbon tax, and that it is solely the lack of political leadership that has kept one from being introduced. The 2008 election, she said, was not a rejection of carbon taxation but rather of the person (Stephanie Dion) who was selling it. A referendum on a carbon tax, she says, has yet to take place in Canada.

Kathryn Harrison, professor of political science at UBC and vocal supporter of the British Columbia carbon tax system, noted that carbon is an easy area for partisan point scoring, and called for this to end. She also brought an international perspective, pointing out that countries that have adopted nation-wide prices on carbon have all done so under some form of proportional representation.

A further critical point that she made was that carbon taxation, once enacted, was likely to be ‘sticky’. Any incoming government that rejects the carbon tax in British Columbia would find itself in the unenviable situation of having to raise income taxes (again) to make up for the forgone carbon tax revenue. This might be even less politically palatable than sticking with the now widely-accepted carbon tax.

Finally, Bob Inglis – the lone U.S. voice who joined our panel to make the conservative case for carbon pricing – found himself welcomed under the progressive banner with open arms. Much of the approach that Mr. Inglis espouses (ending fossil fuel subsidies, shifting taxes from income to pollution, and removing “clumsy government regulations”) aligns with what the Liberal Party of Canada proposed with the Green Shift in 2008. The key difference, our panel concluded, was Bob’s call for the clearest possible price signal and system. That way, as both Eric Newell and Jean Charest concurred, entrepreneurs and innovators can enter the marketplace with solutions and technologies that ease the transition to a lower-carbon economy.

For Bob, explaining a carbon tax (not a cap-and-trade) to his constituents in the U.S. proved challenging, but was more effectively done through the lens of ‘pollution’ and ‘clean air’, all ways that personalize the issue for voters in the here and now (not extrapolate outwards to future generations). This – we at Canada 2020 believe – could be an effective model for moving forward with the debate in Canada. This is an area in which we will be doing further work in the forthcoming months.

Canada 2020 sincerely thanks everyone who watched this panel either in person or online. Without the support of our sponsors and the passionate engagement of everyday Canadians, policy conversations like this would not have the same impact.

Canada 2020 will be continuing its work on carbon pricing with future research, events and programming. To stay involved, join our mailing list, host your own meetings with our materials, follow us online, and connect with our staff members.

Thank you.

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