Pricing pollution is key

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When things cost more, people conserve. When energy costs more, they cut back on use. When transportation costs more, people’s driving habits change.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on August 14, 2023.

OTTAWA—While forest fires rage around the world, some Canadian leaders continue to deny climate change.

Federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault launched regulations last week to build a net-zero electricity grid by 2035, as opponents lined up against him.

Canada’s official opposition leader continues his “Axe the Tax” campaign while premiers in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba add their voices to those who want to get rid of carbon pricing.

National pollsters added fuel to the debate with findings that the majority of Canadians do not think the carbon pricing has actually positively influenced the environment.

A poll published last week by Nanos research said two-thirds of Canadians say it is a poor time to increase the cost of carbon, and a majority who said they believe the carbon price increase is ineffective at tackling climate change.

That result was not surprising. When is there ever a good time for a tax increase in most peoples’ minds?

To be fair, ordinary Canadians are not involved in the minute details of what needs to be done to tackle climate change.

But the notion that an increase in the cost of carbon will not affect carbon use is simply not logical, whatever the polling says.

It was the increase in the cost of gas during the climate crisis in the last century that encouraged the introduction of smaller vehicles and increased focus on reducing emissions.

Emissions are reduced when less carbon is burned. Less carbon is burned when vehicles are lighter, smaller and more fuel efficient.

The rise in the purchase of hybrid vehicles and electric cars is directly linked to the increasing cost of fuel.

One only has to travel to Europe or Asia to see how the high price of gasoline has encouraged people to move into smaller cars, and multiple means of lower-emitting forms of transportation.

A poll about taxation or carbon pricing does not delve deeply enough into the real problem.

The question should be comparative. Are you willing to pay more in energy costs to reduce fires and floods? That is the real cost-benefit analysis that must be done by governments, companies, and consumers.

According to Driving, most recent 2021 statistics show that one in four vehicles purchased in Canada is a pickup truck. The highest number of pickup truck users are in Alberta with the highest per capita usage of trucks in Saskatchewan.

Ontario’s population is more than three times greater than that of Alberta, but consumers in Canada’s most populous province don’t buy as many trucks. Ontario’s rural footprint is also much larger than Alberta’s.

The more it costs to fill up those vehicles, the more consumers will make decisions to move to smaller and more energy-efficient vehicles.

Carbon pricing will affect purchasing practices, but changes won’t show up immediately.

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston was on the news last week attacking the federal carbon pricing program.

But he is also lined up looking for financial help in the wake of disastrous loss of life and property caused by fires and floods resulting from global warming in his province.

The federal government pays 90 per cent of the cost of disaster relief.

This year will likely be the most expensive for disaster relief payouts in history based on the number of forest fires and floods across the country.

Houston did not have a plan to tackle climate change. He did refer to the potential of ocean wind power, and blamed the lack of wind investment on the federal government.

Houston kept repeating that he believed in solutions to climate change, but had nothing specific to offer except opposition to increase the price of carbon.

Nobody likes to pay more for anything.

But if we are serious about tackling the reality of climate change, something has to give.

Not all carbon pricing opponents are in denial. Houston kept repeating that he realized there is a problem. But he seemed ill-equipped or unprepared to offer alternatives.

The only way to move consumers toward energy efficiencies is to increase the cost of pollution caused by burning carbon.

When the world was facing a growing hole in the ozone layer, the solution was a replacement to the chemical in use as a coolant in refrigerators and air conditioners.

The new coolant was vastly more expensive. Not surprisingly, wastage dropped dramatically solving the ozone layer problem.

When things cost more, people conserve. When energy costs more, they cut back on consumption.

When transportation costs more, people’s driving habits change.

Pricing pollution is key.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.