With just weeks to go before the start of the federal election campaign, in which climate change is set to be a central concern for voters, Conservatives have seized on the potential for a carbon tax increase after Environment Minister Catherine McKenna appeared to leave the door open over the weekend.
Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre criticized McKenna in a press conference on Monday morning over an interview she gave to the Globe and Mail on Sunday in which she appeared to back off a pledge not to raise the carbon tax once it reaches the $50-per-tonne target set by the Liberals in 2022.
She said that if re-elected, the federal government would review the carbon tax price towards the end of a potential second mandate following consultations with stakeholders, and decide at that point whether the amount should stay the same or increase.
While that matches the letter of the commitment the Liberals made with the provinces in 2016, McKenna had also said just two months ago that “the plan is not to increase the price post-2022.”
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Poilievre argued in his press conference that McKenna had “accidentally told the truth” about a plan to impose significant new costs on Canadians.
“She said there would be no increase after the year 2022. Well, yesterday, she accidentally told the truth,” he told reporters.
“She admitted that if re-elected, the carbon tax will go much higher than Liberals previously said.”
McKenna pushed back on that in her own press conference on Monday but would not rule out an increase to the carbon tax after 2022.
Several times during that press conference, McKenna was asked by reporters to clarify her comments and say whether she was open to a carbon tax increase.
“Our position has not changed as a government,” she said, citing the 2016 talks.
“That concluded a price on pollution until 2022. So there is no intention to go up beyond that. Any decision would be made in discussions with provinces and territories and stakeholders. That is our position, that has been our position and that continues to be our position.”
She continued, adding that “there’s no secret agenda. Any decision to go up would be in consultation.”
But when asked whether she was ruling out an increase following any consultations in the future, McKenna did not say that was the case.
“All I’m saying is we have negotiated to 2022,” she said.
“That’s all we have, and we have modeled to 2022 the emissions reductions associated with pricing.”
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The sparring over a potential increase to the carbon tax comes months after the Parliamentary Budget Officer warned earlier this year that the Liberals remain committed to hitting the emissions reductions targets they agreed to in the Paris Accord, they would need to raise the carbon tax to do so.
That deal calls on countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 30 per cent of 2005 levels by 2030.
Poilievre also warned that if the Liberals do decide to increase the cost of the carbon tax, that could have implications for Quebec.
“If the federal government raises the carbon tax higher than present levels in Quebec, then Quebecers will also have to pay more,” Poilievre argued.
Right now, the federal government imposes the carbon tax on provinces that do not have a plan of their own that meets federal criteria.
Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick had the price imposed on them earlier this year.
Alberta is set to have the price imposed in January 2020.
The current price on carbon is $20 per tonne, which will rise by $10 per tonne each year until it hits $50 per tonne in 2022.
That translates to an additional 4.4 cents per litre of gasoline for consumers at the pumps.
Other provinces, including Quebec, have plans to reduce emissions that the federal government has deemed meet their benchmark criteria.
Quebec runs a cap-and-trade system that puts a price on carbon of roughly $20 per tonne, based on market demand and minimum pricing requirements.
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That system has led to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and followed the initial imposition of a carbon levy by the province back in 2006.
Because of that existing system, the emissions reductions and the goal to continue reducing emissions by roughly 36 per cent by 2030, Quebec — like other provinces with similar systems — is exempt from the federal carbon tax.
It’s not clear how an increase beyond the established federal carbon tax price framework would impact Quebec, given its system uses a separate model linked into a broader international cap-and-trade carbon marketplace. Imposing a price would be more complex than imposing one on a province with no system.
Global News asked McKenna’s office to clarify under what circumstances the federal government would or could consider imposing a carbon price on Quebec and how the existing system there could factor into what options the federal government has.
A spokesperson for McKenna did not answer the question but said any changes to the program beyond 2022 should be raised in the election after that.
“Quebeckers and all Canadians expect their governments to take meaningful action to combat climate change, something the Conservatives don’t seem to understand,” said press secretary Sabrina Kim in an email.
“There’s an election coming up and our plan is mapped out until 2022. Beyond that plan, it’s a question for the 2023 election.”
Quebec is a key region where the Liberals need to hold or win more seats in order to maintain power in the fall election.
One expert said he expects the decision to raise the prospect of a carbon tax in Quebec ties into the Conservative Party’s larger bid to tackle voter concerns in the province about affordability and gas prices.
“It’s probably to deal with some opportunity the Conservatives see in some parts of Quebec where the issue of increased taxation as framed by Poilievre and the Conservatives would be an issue,” said Tim Powers, vice chairman of Summa Strategies.
“I think they are focused on affordability and you’re going to see a lot more around that, and a carbon tax is one of the more higher-recognized items when it comes to the affordability challenge because it’s become in some ways a symbol for other things.”
“I suspect they’ll try to layer in other things and the carbon tax is a bit of an opener.”
Additional increases on the carbon tax after it hits the $50-per-tonne target is also a key part of the Green Party’s environmental platform.
That party advocates for increasing the cost by $10 per tonne per year indefinitely, until there are no more greenhouse gas emissions.
The Greens have surged in momentum over the past year, picking up seats in provincial and federal byelections that had previously been held by the Liberals and NDP. That comes as the Liberals are also facing pressure to do more on climate change, set to be a key issue during the fall campaign.
The decision to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline last year for $4.5 billion — not including the cost of expansion — has led to criticisms from some environmental advocates that the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has failed in its pledge to take on climate change.