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Canada’s federal government takes a cue from British Columbia’s price on carbon

Yet another departure from the Harper era of government.

Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SAIT SERKAN GURBUZ
Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/SAIT SERKAN GURBUZ

Canadian Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna pledged Sunday to enact a nationwide carbon price on provinces that don’t do enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions on their own.

McKenna did not give specific details on how the plan would be devised, or how the price would be imposed, though she said it would be in place sometime before October.

“It’s mandatory that everyone will have to have a price on carbon,” McKenna said. “If provinces don’t do that, the federal government will provide a backstop.”

According to the Globe and Mail, the federal government’s desire to impose a carbon pricing scheme nationally is being met with criticism from several provinces, which argue that a province-by-province approach would be a better way to reduce carbon emissions. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has led the opposition to a price on carbon, arguing that a carbon tax would impose undue burden on the oil and gas industry in western Canada.

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But McKenna argued that each province would be allowed to create their own pricing scheme — whether a tax like British Columbia, or a cap-and-trade system like Quebec — and would only be subject to the national scheme if they are not achieving sufficient reductions. Four provinces in Canada — British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and, Quebec — currently have some kind of carbon pricing scheme, and approximately 80 percent of Canadians live in an area where there is a price on carbon.

British Columbia’s carbon tax, which was implemented in 2008, has been successful in reducing emissions while having a “negligible” effect on the province’s economic activity. Moreover, the tax has become popular among residents and businesses —polling last year found that only 32 percent of voters oppose the tax, and businesses have actually called for the tax to be increased.

In Washington state, residents will have a chance to vote for their own version of a carbon tax this November, inspired by the success seen in British Columbia. And nationwide, a new poll shows that Americans might be willing to pay a carbon tax in order to reduce global warming (as long as the amount remains fairly low).

But British Columbia’s carbon tax appears to be in flux after the provincial government declined to raise the price in its new climate change plan. The price has remained stagnant since 2011, not even increasing to keep up with inflation — something environmentalists argue makes the tax less effective.

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“Everyone is clear — to be effective, a price has to be a price that actually has an impact on behavior,” McKenna said, suggesting the federal government might move to compel British Columbia to raise its carbon tax if the province does not do so itself.

On Sunday, McKenna also failed to say whether or not the Canadian government would set nationwide emissions reduction targets below those initially set by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2015, but her spokewoman told the Globe and Mail last week that the targets would not be lowered during the government’s upcoming round of climate planning, which is set to take place sometime this fall, in advance of the U.N. climate conference in Morocco.

Despite the government’s reticence to reconsider nationwide emissions targets, Canada has seen a modest shift in climate priorities and policies since the election of the Liberal party with Prime Minister Stephen Trudeau. Under Trudeau’s leadership, the Canadian government has committed to working with indigenous groups in the Arctic, announced major pipeline reforms, and promised to ratify the Paris climate agreement this fall.

Still, without deepening the reduction targets set by the previous administration, environmentalists worry Canada remains on a path to climate failure. Harper’s targets — which Trudeau’s government seems ready to accept — require the country to reduce its emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Official figures show Canada is not on track to meet these reductions without implementing “radical” measures, according to Reuters.

On Sunday, McKenna indicated that a nationwide price on carbon might be that radical measure.

“We know, as part of our climate change plan, to meet our international target, that we need to have a price on carbon,” McKenna said. “It’s the best way to reduce emissions and foster innovation.”