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Debate: Climate plans fuzzy around edges

When it came to discussing climate change in Sunday’s B.C. leaders’ debate, perhaps the most surprising thing was the number of times New Democratic Party leader Carole James didn’t mention the carbon tax.

She had plenty of opportunities to raise it in the early going, as the leaders discussed the economy and the problems of rural B.C. In the past, James has touted her “axe the tax” campaign as an economic stimulus and a way to correct hardships imposed on rural areas.

She resisted the temptation Sunday night, however – perhaps an indication that the tax hasn’t been gaining the kind of traction that the party had hoped for.

When the topic turned specifically to climate change, James bashed Liberal Gordon Campbell over the carbon tax, which the NDP insists is unfair and ineffective.

“If you look at the carbon tax, the government’s own figures show it simply reduces emissions by just over 2 per cent by the year 2020,” James said.

It’s unclear which figures James is quoting here – and it wouldn’t be the first time that the NDP has had trouble making climate change numbers add up.

However, the government’s Climate Action Plan, released last summer, states that the carbon tax will cut “up to” three million tonnes of greenhouse gases annually.

B.C. produced about 62 million tonnes of ghgs in 2006, the last year there are figures available, so three million tonnes would work out to just under five per cent. Again, though, it's difficult to say exactly what James was getting at here.

James also repeated suggestions that the Liberals’ climate plan lets big polluters off the hook.

“He’s not bringing forward a plan that gets at the big polluters and we will,” she said of Campbell.

That statement is open to interpretation, but the fact is, the carbon tax applies to polluters of all sizes – virtually everyone who burns fossil fuels pays it according to how dirty the fuel is.

Where the debate arises is over a category of emissions known as process emissions, from industrial processes such as aluminum smelting and cement manufacture. The Liberals say they plan to tax such processes in the future or include them under a cap and trade system that is still being worked out.

The NDP would scrap the carbon tax and put a hard cap on industrial emissions, while working toward a cap and trade system.

While touting the revenue neutral quality of the carbon tax, Campbell emphasized the personal and corporate tax cuts that will offset the carbon tax.

“We’re actually going to reduce personal income taxes, small business taxes by 44 per cent last year,” Campbell said. “We’ll have the lowest corporate taxes.”

The government is reducing the small business corporate income tax rate to 2.5 per cent from 4.5 per cent, a 44 per cent reduction.

But the government states that this will be “the second lowest” small business rate in Canada.

And as for having the “lowest corporate taxes,” the government’s own publicity settles for B.C. having “some of the lowest in Canada.”

Both Green party leader Jane Sterk and James pointed out that Campbell’s government is pushing oil and gas exploration at the same time it tries to lower carbon emissions – a policy that many environmentalists say won’t work.

Tom Barrett reports for The Tyee.

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