How to talk about a carbon price – without panicking

by Diana Carney & Alex Paterson. Posted April 17, 2013


Today, Canada 2020 will host a public panel event in Ottawa on carbon pricing. It is called ‘How to sell carbon pricing to Canadians’ and we planned it last fall. As it turns out, our timing could not have been better. In the wake of Alberta Minister McQueen’s statement on a possible 40/40 carbon emissions reduction plan for that province, new energy has been injected into the climate debate in this country.

We hope that the conversation is constructive, open, and reasonable: all things currently missing from our dialogue on carbon and climate in Canada. Our intention is to capture and reinforce that energy and enthusiasm to help build towards actual solutions.

Our goal in convening the panel is to open a dialogue that is respectful of all positions, so that we can begin to take steps towards identifying shared interest in the climate debate. This, in turn, could provide the basis for actions that will make the necessary cuts in our emissions.

A good first step would be to support our governments in finding ways to meet our Copenhagen commitments. But we can and should strive for more. Blame for inaction lies at the feet of all federal parties: quite simply, now is the time to move on.

Countries that have progressed in this area in recent years – such as Ireland and Australia – have benefited from a societal consensus that has transcended short-term political thinking. What is preventing Canada from following their lead?

Above and beyond the Alberta climate proposal, there are some indications that now might be the right time for action. A recent report by Sustainable Prosperity has detailed how companies across Canada, including in the oil and gas sector, are making use of shadow carbon pricing in their day to day operations – planning for a day when carbon pricing is introduced. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives has a standing call for a nationally consistent carbon price, and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers has apparently responded to the Alberta 40/40 proposal with a 20/20 proposal of its own, tacitly acknowledging that more needs to be done.

A more active dialogue is developing around Canada’s future as a large-scale energy exporter – with much of the open, constructive debate happening beyond our borders and not at home where it is most needed. President Barack Obama’s forthright statements on climate change – even if they are not yet matched by action – seem to be leading people to question why our government is avoiding engaging the Canadian public on these issues.

It is worth noting that upon advertising our event, it sold out in a few short hours. Over 450 people are signed up to be part of the conversation. They hail from all walks of professional life: the business community, the NGO sector, academics and public servants. The public is clearly ready.

If any country has the incentive to make progress, Canada does. The Arctic is warming at twice the global average rate. And if any country has the information available to inform that debate, Canada does. The province of British Columbia has had a ‘pure’ carbon tax in place since 2009. This is a revenue-neutral tax: all proceeds are returned in the form of business and personal tax cuts. It has not destroyed the economy as many predicted. In fact some businesses have benefitted significantly: the wood pellet and carbon-neutral bio fuel opportunities may have provided a lifeline to the forest industry. And carbon emissions and fossil fuel usage have gone down absolutely and relative to the Canadian average.

Meanwhile Alberta has a hybrid system of intensity reduction targets coupled with penalties (paid to a green technology fund) for failure to achieve these. Companies also have the opportunity to purchase offsets from others that are meeting their targets. And as of January 1 2013 Quebec also has a cap and trade system in place that links the province with California. With such a wealth of experience, Canada should be teaching courses on carbon pricing, not hiding in the back room.

Through our session on April 17 we are aiming to understand a number of the key dynamics at play in our carbon debate: how is carbon pricing best linked in people’s minds to beneficial economic outcomes? Can intergenerational responsibility (i.e. the fact that people care what happens to their children and grandchildren) translate into climate action? And can we build political momentum across party lines to use all policy tools available to meet our international commitments?

But most of all, our goal is to reignite a positive debate on carbon pricing and, in so doing, begin building towards a plan with which the majority of Canadians identify – and of which they can be proud.