At long last, after years of fudging and filibustering, the Conservative Party of Canada has a climate plan. And if the early returns are any indication, it might be the worst of both worlds — a policy that will simultaneously infuriate many of the party’s most fervent supporters and underwhelm Canadian voters who care about climate change.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which had been in lockstep with federal Conservatives on their shared opposition to the Trudeau government’s carbon tax and rebate, let party leader Erin O’Toole have it with both barrels. “It’s outrageous that O’Toole is now planning to hammer Canadians with higher fuel bills through his very own carbon tax,” said Franco Terrazzano, the CTF’s Alberta director. “When he was running for leader, O’Toole pledged to taxpayers that he would fight carbon taxes. If he goes through with this scheme, he will be breaking his promise to Canadians.”
Terrazzano is talking from his organization’s book here, of course, but his reaction may also be informed by a recognition that O’Toole’s plan has a lot in common with the one that Rachel Notley’s NDP introduced in 2016. Both revolved around a carbon tax, and both tried to pretend it was something different by referring to it as a “levy.” And where Notley’s Climate Leadership Plan invested directly in things like energy efficiency retrofits and other consumer-oriented carbon-reduction opportunities, the O’Toole plan proposes to create “personal low-carbon savings accounts” that could be used to spend on said opportunities. The O’Toole plan even keeps the system for large industrial emitters developed by the Notley NDP and later adapted by the federal government.
But while O’Toole’s plan will almost certainly trigger the anti-carbon tax part of his base, it’s not clear why it would impress anyone who actually cares about climate change. After all, it would cut Canada’s current carbon tax in half to just $20 per tonne, and put a $50-per-tonne ceiling on it — a far cry from the $170-per-tonne target the current plan intends to reach by 2030. And while the Conservatives' new climate plan has been independently analyzed and they say it will meet Canada’s emissions reductions targets for 2030, the party initially declined to share any of that analysis with the reporters covering the story.
There is some good news in here for Canadians who care about climate change; at least the federal Conservative Party has decided it doesn’t want to keep dying on the same hill it’s been fighting to protect for years. "We recognize that the most efficient way to reduce our emissions is to use pricing mechanisms," the plan acknowledges. This is a bit like recognizing the Earth rotates around the sun, but being able to put this part of the discussion behind us is a positive development, albeit long overdue. Now, at last, we can move past the question of whether we should be doing anything to fight climate change and instead focus on what, exactly, must be done.
But make no mistake: O’Toole’s Conservatives are simply retreating to a new hill here. Rather than resisting a carbon tax, they’ll make the case for a rebranded one that does as little as possible. That will mean plenty of talk about how Alberta’s oil and gas industry has reduced its emissions, and why China and India aren’t doing nearly enough. It will also mean new subsidies for higher-emitting industries, and an abiding belief that technology will somehow allow us to avoid actually making the hard decisions climate change demands.
What it won’t do is offer a credible alternative for climate-concerned Canadians in the next election. O’Toole could have accepted the Liberal government’s proposed path to $170 per tonne, and promised to use those revenues to cut personal and corporate income taxes to levels that would make Canada a more attractive place to live and invest. That would have aligned with his party’s own philosophy and ideology, and kept the country on a plausible path to meeting its 2030 targets. Instead, O’Toole is serving up a rebranded bag of leftovers and hoping Canadians are hungry enough for change that they’ll look past its obvious flaws.
There’s no question this plan, for all of those flaws, is better than anything his predecessor put out there. It embraces the kinds of regulations that Conservatives used to recoil at instinctively, including a low-carbon fuel standard and a zero-emission vehicle standard, and it doesn’t set aside the output-based pricing system for large emitters. But in retreating to this comparatively higher ground on climate policy, O’Toole is inviting attacks from both sides. And at the end of the day, dying differently on a new hill isn’t much better than dying the same way on the old one.