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Science + Tech

Don't Call Him Mr. Carbon Tax

Hotshot eco-wonk Mark Jaccard, on what really works.

Tom Barrett 6 Mar

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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SFU's Jaccard: Just say no

[Editor's note: This is the first of a two-day series on Mark Jaccard, the SFU energy economics wonk who has Premier Campbell's ear.]

To the public he's Mr. Carbon Tax, but Mark Jaccard says the label's wrong.

"Although in the media lately I'm portrayed as the carbon tax advocate, if you read any of my work, I'm not," he says. "I'm not a carbon tax advocate."

He is, he says, an advocate of forcing people to do various things in order to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

"I am a compulsory policy advocate because the research has shown me that the other stuff didn't work," he says.

The "other stuff" -- subsidies and information campaigns -- made up Canadian climate change policy for the last 20 years. The failure of these policies to reduce emissions highlights a "second inconvenient truth" about climate change, says Jaccard.

The only way governments will lower emissions is through taxes or some form of regulatory scheme, he says -- and he adds that he doesn't care which they choose.

Carbon taxes, like the one the B.C. government brought in two weeks ago, do have some advantages, however. Carbon taxes, Jaccard says, have the potential to be more equitable than other measures because the revenue raised can be given back through tax breaks, protecting those with low incomes.

Jaccard, the Simon Fraser University resource and environmental management professor who has become a key member of Premier Gordon Campbell's inner circle of climate change policy advisors, made these comments in Vancouver this week during a speech sponsored by Voters Taking Action on Climate Change.

During the speech, he said:

Strategic calculator

With his goatee, blue jeans and backpack, Jaccard looks more like a grad student than the former head of the B.C. Utilities Commission. An internationally known environmental economist, he's advised the governments of Canada, China and B.C.

As the special advisor to B.C.'s Climate Action Team and the Cabinet Committee on Climate Action, he's been identified as the inspiration for the carbon tax, even though he says his contribution to the budget was minimal.

He has a reputation as an independent thinker: in fact, Jaccard's take on reducing the emissions that cause climate change have placed him on opposing sides from just about everybody at one time or another.

He's a strategic voter, he tells the Voters Taking Action on Climate Change meeting. Over the years, that's meant he's voted for the Green party, the NDP and the federal Liberals.

Broken light bulb lesson

He tells the story of how he was once an "energy efficiency aficionado," going out and replacing all the light bulbs in his house with compact fluorescents. He worked up a spreadsheet that showed that the bulbs would pay for themselves over their expected 10-year life.

Then he dropped one. It broke.

He went back to the computer and figured out that, even if all the other bulbs he'd bought lasted 10 years, he still wouldn't get his investment back.

Technologies that offer savings far down the road are riskier technologies, says Jaccard. "People know that intuitively. They don't shell out a lot of money for stuff that's going to pay off later on."

The same goes for things like hybrid cars, he says.

Focused on motivations

"That doesn't mean that I am against energy efficiency," says Jaccard, who says his house is still filled with compact fluorescent bulbs. "Don't get me wrong. I am as adamant about energy efficiency as I ever was.

"But if energy efficiency is going to happen, we need to be honest about the economics. We need to be honest about policy. Otherwise we're just deluding ourselves."

Policy makers need to understand that people burn energy to satisfy fundamental human needs, he says.

His researchers, for example, now refer to cars as PMSESICDs – Personal Mobility, Status Enhancing and Sexual Insecurity Compensatory Devices.

"I'm a great advocate of behavioural change," he says. "But let's be realistic here. Christianity has been trying to get us to love thy neighbour for 2,000 years and to give away all our wealth, not acquire things anymore.

"It's made some progress, but at the same time it's pretty hard to change people's behaviours.

"And what are the behaviours that cause the desire for more energy use? It's the desire for mobility, it's a desire for things, even to give as gifts to others. It's a desire for comfort, for entertainment, for leisure. Those are some pretty fundamental desires that human beings have."

One-Tonne bust

That's part of the reason information campaigns like the federal government's One-Tonne Challenge -- remember those ads with Rick Mercer? -- didn't work, Jaccard says.

Take the example of people speeding in school zones. Everyone knows that it's wrong to speed in a school zone, right?

"So why in the heck do we have compulsory policies for speeding in school zones?"

Because we need them: both financial policies (fines) and regulatory policies (licence suspensions).

In addition to information campaigns, the main non-compulsory tool is subsidies, which Jaccard says don't work either. The problem is that there are too many "free riders" -- people who receive a subsidy for doing something they would have done anyway.

Giving subsidies to people who are already riding the bus, for example, doesn't do anything to lower emissions, he says. And he estimates that 98 per cent of those receiving the federal government's Transit Pass Tax Credit are free riders.

(Not that they don't deserve a break on their transit fares, says Jaccard, who thinks transit is too expensive.)

Just say no

As an example of a policy that did work to reduce emissions, Jaccard points to acid rain. The Canadian and U.S. governments made substantial reductions in sulphur dioxide levels during the 1980s and 1990s through compulsory mechanisms.

"Please tell me what changes you made in your lifestyle for acid emissions to go down," he asks. "Lead doesn't come out of the tailpipe of your car anymore. What are you doing differently?"

Tomorrow: Mark Jaccard responds to carbon tax critics.

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