COMMENTARY: Conservatives must provide creative alternatives to the carbon tax
The war on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax got several degrees warmer Monday as Ontario officially began a court challenge to the federal carbon tax.
“The federal government’s carbon tax is forcing Ontarians to pay more to heat their homes, drive to work and buy groceries. It’s simply not fair to hardworking individuals, families and small businesses,” said Attorney General Caroline Mulroney.
The Ontario government is launching a constitutional challenge against the tax, joining Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick and probably soon Alberta in what is shaping up to be the biggest issue in the upcoming federal election.
Trudeau is likely loving this fight. It puts Conservative leader Andrew Scheer in a tough spot: while carbon taxes may irk Ontario and the West, they are popular in B.C. and Quebec, two provinces where the Tories need to make gains if they are to form government. Allying himself with the anti-tax premiers will boost Scheer in some quarters but hurt him in others — unless he comes up with a plan that satisfies both energy producers and environmentalists.
That may not be as implausible as it sounds. Deconstructing the Liberal carbon tax isn’t that hard; while proponents claim it will act like a market mechanism for reducing emissions, by raising the price of fuel and disincentivizing use, evidence suggests otherwise.
Industry can simply pass the cost of the tax along to consumers, who in turn will be rebated by the government, thus reducing the need for them to cut back consumption. Polling in December 2018 found that only 20 per cent of us would switch to more fuel-efficient vehicles or take alternate transportation with prices at $1 to $1.25 a litre — which is where the tax has taken the price in Ontario today.
Ontario government challenges Federal carbon tax in court
Add to this the long list of industries that will be exempt from the tax, the concern that the Liberals are simply looking to line Ottawa’s pockets, the arbitrary nature of the “price” (fixed not by the market but by the state), and the plan has more holes than Swiss cheese.
And there’s another issue Scheer can point to: while weaning our economies off fossil fuels may be desirable or necessary in the long term, in the short and medium term, the fact is that these fuels will remain the preferred choice for large swaths of the global population.
Driving demand is economic growth. Despite scaling back coal consumption at home, China is now financing a quarter of the coal plants built outside the country, in energy-hungry emerging markets. In the United States, carbon emissions rose 3.4 per cent in 2018, the biggest increase in eight years, due to a combination of a cold winter, a booming economy and an increase in trucking and air travel.
Here at home, emissions are growing as well — and will grow even further due to another factor: immigration. Environmentalist John Meyer estimates that a typical immigrant to Canada will emit 4.2 times the carbon emissions than in their country of origin. So unless we all take cold showers, pile on the sweaters and stop driving, we will fight an uphill battle until the end of time.
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If the world is not going to quit fossil fuels for the conceivable future, then instead of taxing emissions, the Tories should focus on the other end of the pipeline: capturing the carbon we emit. Carbon sequestration is, as its name implies, the removal of carbon from the atmosphere. It occurs naturally via vegetation and volcanic rock. The earth’s forests alone sequester two gigatonnes of CO2 per year, making forest management, afforestation and reforestation natural allies in the fight against climate change.
Using wood in construction as opposed to other materials extends the effect of tree-based sequestration. Other plant-based means of sequestering carbon include carbon farming, in which plants trap CO2 and return it to the soil. Increasing grasslands, wetlands and coastal vegetation zones are also means of removing carbon from the atmosphere.
Carbon can even be scrubbed from the air through mechanical means. A Swiss company called Climeworks operates 14 carbon capture plants around the globe. While it currently costs $600 to extract a tonne of CO2, Climeworks predicts the costs will fall to $200 within three to four years.
Another carbon extraction company, Canada-based Carbon Engineering, is turning extracted carbon into fuel. Backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, the company has developed technology that allows the “decarbonization of any vehicle,” and estimates the current cost at $94 to $232 per tonne of CO2.
While this is higher than the price Ottawa proposes to put on carbon, unlike that price, which increases over time, the cost of sequestration is set to decrease as technology advances. It also comes with the added benefit of not decimating the fossil fuel industry — and the economies that depend on it, including Canada’s.
Not surprisingly, Canada’s fossil fuel companies are getting in on the game, even deploying CO2 to increase oil production — while sequestering the gas in the ground. That is the goal of the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line, a 240-kilometre pipeline being built by Canadian company Enhance Energy, which will capture CO2 from a fertilizer plant and the new Sturgeon Refinery near Edmonton, and send it to mature conventional oilfields near Clive, Alta. CO2 from the pipeline will then enable oil producers to extract an additional billion barrels of light oil while sinking the carbon into the ground. It is scheduled to be operating by 2020 and will sequester up to 14.6 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year — the equivalent of taking 2.6 million cars off the road.
With all these options on the table, it’s not enough for conservative politicians to simply oppose carbon taxes. They need to inject some creativity into the conversation, and produce carbon plans that do what the current government is failing to do: satisfy the demands of both energy producers and the environment. A focus on carbon capture and sequestration would do just that.
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Yet currently, the Ontario government’s website lists only one carbon capture project from 2012, involving algae generated by the St. Mary’s cement plant, and focuses instead on the traditional objectives of conservation and development of alternative fuels. As for the federal Tories, we’re still waiting to hear what their climate plan will be.
A smart strategy would emphasize that it is possible to produce and use fossil fuels while reducing our carbon footprint. It would bring the nation together, instead of dividing it; it would reconcile the interests of east and west, environmentalists and energy producers, climate change foes and climate skeptics. Technology, not taxes, provides the path to combat climate change — and just possibly, to energize the electorate.
Tasha Kheiriddin is the founder and CEO of Ellipsum Communications and a Global News contributor.
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