While announcing a package of measures to respond to concerns about the cost of energy in Atlantic Canada on Thursday — a package that quickly triggered both supporters of climate action and foes of the Liberal government — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it “an important moment where we’re adjusting policies so that they have the right outcome.”
The best outcome for the planet (and for Trudeau’s government) would be a significant reduction in Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. Ideally, that would be achieved quickly, efficiently and fairly, minimizing the cost and disruption to Canadians and the economy.
On paper, economists generally agree that imposing a price on carbon has to be an integral part of any plan to cut emissions. In practice, the Trudeau government’s carbon tax was being blamed for significant unhappiness in the Atlantic provinces, where the federal policy was introduced earlier this year to replace a patchwork of inconsistent provincial policies.
When that unhappiness persisted, Liberal MPs from Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick publicly called on the government to do something.
WATCH: PM Trudeau announces carbon tax pause for home heating oil
Featured VideoPrime Minister Justin Trudeau says the pause will allow Atlantic Canadians to make the switch away from fossil fuels without worrying about the upfront cost. The CBC’s Carolyn Stokes breaks down the announcement.
And so, on Thursday afternoon, Trudeau stood in front of a dozen of those MPs to announce a series of adjustments. Whether they’ll lead to the outcome he wants is both a political and a policy question — one that might not be answered until the next election.
Two of the measures announced the prime minister are hard to argue with. While all Canadians who live in provinces covered by the federal carbon tax receive a rebate, a “top-up” is added to the rebates for residents in rural areas — accounting for the fact that rural residents have less access to things like public transit.
That supplement will now be doubled. Meanwhile, new programs will be launched in Atlantic Canada to make it easier for people to afford the installation of heat pumps.
But the Trudeau government will also be exempting home heating oil — a significant source of energy in Atlantic Canada — from the federal carbon tax for the next three years. It’s on this point that questions about the “right outcome” emerge.
The policy and politics of an exemption
The three-year exemption introduces inconsistency to a policy that works best when it’s consistent. As Dale Beugin and Christoper Ragan, two proponents of carbon pricing, wrote last week, “the more policy certainty there is regarding the carbon price and its future path, the more effective the carbon price will be at driving the long-term low-carbon investments required for reducing emissions.”
The superior alternative, Beugin and Ragan argued, would be to boost rebates and subsidies to alleviate concerns about the cost.
When the federal government was setting a national price on carbon between 2016 and 2019, it allowed for a certain amount of inconsistency across provincial systems. Heating oil was, for example, exempted from the carbon tax in Newfoundland and P.E.I. Perfection was not allowed to become the enemy of the good.
But the Liberals had been moving to eliminate those imperfections. And this new exemption — although temporary — inevitably will provoke questions about whether other individuals or concerns should be entitled to special treatment.
On cue, the premiers of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario — three politicians who have loudly opposed federal climate policy — publicly demanded on Thursday that an exemption be given to those who heat their homes with natural gas.
WATCH: Pierre Poilievre calls carbon tax pause a ‘panicked flip-flop’
Featured VideoFederal Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, who was in St. John’s on Friday, said PM Justin Trudeau only decided to pause the carbon tax to win votes and not because he truly cares about people’s financial struggles.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre — another loud opponent of Liberal climate action — went further, arguing that the government’s moves this week were an implicit admission that the carbon tax is a terrible burden on Canadians and that the country would be better off without it.
Trudeau’s Liberals need some good answers to these arguments.
How the carbon tax might be saved
Trudeau argued on Thursday that, regardless of the price signal of the carbon tax on heating oil, people were unable to make the move to heat pumps — and a three-year freeze will give people enough time to switch. But Trudeau’s decision to risk undermining one of his signature policies — after expending so much effort and political capital to implement a carbon tax and then defend it in two federal elections — can’t be understood without considering the political realities of the moment.
Poilievre has been unable or unwilling to explain what he’d do to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, but he has been unrelenting in his attacks on the federal carbon tax. He’s blamed the policy for higher food prices and holds frequent “axe the tax” rallies.
Even though revenue from the federal carbon tax is rebated to households, cost-of-living concerns have become acute because of persistent inflation. And when another federal climate policy — clean fuel regulations — came into effect earlier this year, Atlantic governments and regulators allowed oil companies to pass on the purported cost to consumers.
Liberal support in the four Atlantic provinces — home to 24 of the Liberal party’s 158 MPs — slipped precipitously. Those 24 Liberal MPs started to worry about their jobs. And with the Liberals trailing the Conservatives nationally by a significant margin, and with his own numbers sagging, Trudeau is in no position to dismiss their concerns.
“We heard you,” Trudeau said on Thursday. “We heard our Atlantic MPs and we heard Atlantic Canadians.”
If public opinion helps explain why the Liberals made this move on Thursday, it might also explain why it seemed like a risk worth taking. If current polls were replicated in an election, the likely outcome would be a Conservative majority in the House of Commons. And if that were to happen, the federal carbon tax — and the clean fuel regulations — would be repealed completely.
So if this week’s adjustments do anything to improve the Liberal Party’s political fortunes — or simply prevent the Conservatives from winning a majority — it might seem to Liberals like a worthwhile short-term sacrifice to preserve a better long-term outcome for the carbon tax.
The Canadian climate debate grinds on
The cost of unmitigated climate change — measured in the material and human impacts of wildfires, floods, storms and heat waves — will always be greater than the cost of acting to limit climate change. And the cost of acting doesn’t get smaller the longer you wait.
But the cost of action has always been an obstacle to climate policy — something climate-conscious politicians ignore at their peril. Having the smartest climate policy isn’t much of a reward if you can’t get enough voters to support it.
“The point of our fight against climate change, the point of our price on pollution and all the measures we put forward, is to get people to change behaviours in ways that are affordable to them,” Trudeau said Thursday.
But in attempting to address one acute issue of affordability, Trudeau may have put himself in a spot where he has to defend his signature policy all over again.
For more than 15 years — except for a brief interlude in 2021 — Canadian politicians have been having some version of the same debateone that pits the imposition of a price on carbon against some never-fully-explained alternative.
Some days it seems like progress is being made. Other days it’s harder to discern whether the debate is inching forward or merely spinning in circles.