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Carbon Pricing Alone Won’t Deliver the Climate Mobilization We Need

This is a guest blog written by Mitchell Beer. The opinions expressed in this article are of the author’s, and are not necessarily reflective of the views of GreenPAC.

There’s a troubling subtext in the flurry of recent support for carbon pricing: the assumption, stated or implied, that all we have to do to rein in Canada’s soaring greenhouse gas emissions is nudge the markets to solve the problem.

It isn’t that pricing isn’t a part of a wider suite of solutions. But if we really expect to reduce the country’s carbon pollution by at least 80%, no later than 2050—from a 1990 baseline that is much lower than our current target’s 2005 reference year—we will need a fundamental shift across the whole economy.

Which means pricing isn’t the end of the story. It’s just an important first step.

You may be familiar with some of the metaphors that have been floating around for the scale of response we need to stabilize the global climate. Climate hawks often call for a mobilization on the scale of the Second World War—or, from low-carbon analyst Ralph Torrie, a reduction in fossil fuel use on a par with the increase that followed the war.

How does a climate strategy based solely on carbon pricing hold up against that standard?

We’ll Get Back To You

Imagine that it’s September 1, 1939. Germany has just invaded Poland. Reports are fragmentary—no Internet, no text messaging—but by mid-afternoon in Ottawa, we know the news isn’t good.

But have no fear: Canada is all set to show leadership. When Parliament convenes for Question Period at 2 PM, the Prime Minister rises in the House with this inspiring statement:

The news from Europe is dire, and we take the situation seriously. We will take the next six to nine months to consult widely and lay the groundwork for a Civilian Production Tax with little impact on corporations. If we get the prices right, it shouldn’t take us more than a couple of years to retool in response to this imminent threat.

Needless to say, that’s not the way an earlier generation of Canadian leaders responded to an overwhelming global crisis. If they had, many of us wouldn’t be here to call them on it.

But it’s an apt parallel for an ideological era in which we expect governments to limit themselves to indirect guidance, rather than robust, effective policies—and even the mildest attempts at intervention can be tied down in endless wrangling and second-guessing.

Carbon Pricing in Perspective

Pricing is an important part of a wider climate strategy. If incoming revenue is directed to low-carbon solutions, a pricing system can be used to fund everything from transit, to low-income solar, to a host of other options for cutting energy use and carbon pollution. And there’s some evidence that the success of British Columbia’s carbon tax exceeded anything that could be explained by economics alone, suggesting that widespread public discussion of a major climate initiative may have been a catalyst for wider action.

But it’s still a mistake to limit our attention and ambition to any single tool in a wider toolbox of government policies that must:

  • Support at least a doubling in energy efficiency, a rapid shift from fossil fuels to electricity, and decarbonization of electricity supply, all by mid-century

  • Treat climate policy as a key component of the country’s job creation and economic diversification strategies

  • Make climate and carbon impacts a primary lens for policy of all kinds, at all levels of government, beginning with infrastructure investment and economic development strategy

  • Give cities the tools, funding and,the information they need to maximize local opportunities to transform energy systems, cut carbon, and create jobs

  • Address the policies, practices, systems, and behaviours outside the energy sector that create the demand for fuel and electricity—and will have to shift to bring about the rapid, deep carbon cuts we need.

About That Election…

These criteria may not be the most realistic standard for judging any of the four national parties’ energy platforms. In a country that has been pulled so far down the road toward a petro state economy, a heavy dose of caution is hardly a surprise. Which is why GreenPAC’s strategy of working around and under party policies to endorse individual candidates is such an important part of the effort to take back our country’s energy policies and, ultimately, the country itself.

Mitchell Beer is President of Ottawa-based Smarter Shift and curator of The Energy Mix, a free, thrice-weekly digest on climate, energy, and the low-carbon transition.


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