Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has promised to rescind the controversial Liberal carbon tax that went into effect on Jan. 1 for industry and will apply April 1 on consumer goods such as gasoline and home heating fuels. Andrew Scheer/Flickr

Climate change caught in political battle over carbon tax

  • January 9, 2019

OTTAWA – Climate politics are shaping up as a federal election issue in a partisan scenario cautioned against by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’, his 2015 encyclical on the environment.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer has promised to rescind the controversial Liberal carbon tax that went into effect on Jan. 1 for industry and will apply April 1 on consumer goods such as gasoline and home heating fuels.

It sets up a story line the Pope has urged governments to avoid, situations in which what he called the “myopia of power politics” results in short-term thinking on environmental issues and the elevation of “particular interests or ideologies” over the common good.

The Conservatives claim the tax is a cash grab that will have little impact on helping Canada meet climate-change targets. Scheer warns that if the Liberals win the October election, they will significantly raise the tax. Conservatives also argue that imposing new taxes when the United States is lowering them makes Canada less competitive.

“It’s obviously going to be a key issue in the election campaign,” said Mark Cameron, executive director of Canadians for Clean Prosperity, an environmental think tank. “I think both sides have decided this is an issue they want to fight.”

The Liberal government is promising a carbon-tax rebate they say will refund to taxpayers 90 per cent of the tax collected. The rebate is based on the number of persons in a household. A family of four in Ontario can expect $304.

“We definitely feel that carbon pricing is a good thing, but we would have liked to have seen it earlier,” said Joe Gunn of Citizens for Public Justice

Before the 2015 election, over 60 church leaders, including the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), called for action on climate change, though not through a carbon tax per se, said Gunn.

He said most faith groups and NGOs his organization works with support a carbon tax “not because it’s the only mechanism, but because it is effective” in modifying behaviour.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis said regardless of which policies governments adopt, “continuity is essential, because policies related to climate change and environmental protection cannot be altered with every change of government. Results take time and demand immediate outlays which may not produce tangible effects within any one government’s term.”

Gunn says the Liberals have adopted the same greenhouse gas emissions target of the previous Conservative government.

“There’s no indication we’ve reduced our emissions yet, and I don’t see them as having a plan that’s going to work,” he said. “Frankly none of the recent governments have brought us close to achieving the promised goals.” 

That is unlikely to improve, said Philip Cross, former chief economic analyst with Statistics Canada and a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa-based think tank.

“If it becomes an election issue, it will be entirely because of symbolism,” he said. “The Liberals are saying, ‘See, we’re taking some action however small and unimportant. It’s hard for the Liberals to pretend they’re being virtuous” when all serious economists say you need a tax of $100 “before you get dramatic meaningful change in people’s behaviour.”

Last July, the CCCB released a joint document with the United Church on climate change. Shaped “profoundly” by Laudato Si’, it affirmed the need to actively promote “a greater reverence for creation and to teach that Earth itself is holy.”

It pointed out that the Canadian government has been discussing climate change since 1988, “but little effective action has taken place.” The document highlighted the “heightened dangers” for Northern populations, which are already being threatened by climate change. 

“Without doubt, the environmental challenges we face are severe; therefore, our spiritual challenges must involve resisting the temptation to abandon hope.” 

The Church urged people to respectfully engage with politicians at all levels and support them in passing environmental legislation.

When the Trudeau government was elected in 2015, advocating “sunny ways,” climate change was high on the agenda with widespread support from the electorate. The Liberals promised to impose a federal carbon price on provinces that failed to implement their own initiatives. 

That leaves Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Yukon and Nunavut forced to pay the federal tax of $20 per tonne of emissions in 2019. The tax is scheduled to rise by $10 a year until it reaches $50 a tonne in 2022.

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