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Global Warming Debate Lost in Carbon Tax Fog

'Partisan scrabbling' ruining chance to educate voters: VTACC's Washbrook.

By Tom Barrett 27 Apr 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Barrett is a Tyee contributing editor who has written extensively about climate change policy.

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Enviro Kevin Washbrook: NDP, Libs agree on much.

The B.C. election campaign has heard plenty of heated talk from the New Democratic Party and environmentalists about the carbon tax. But up in Fort Nelson, Mayor Bill Streeper says he doesn't hear much about it.

"Basically, up here it's not a major issue," Streeper told The Tyee. "Nobody is really mad."

A year ago, Streeper's predecessor, former mayor Chris Morey, was one of the leaders of the anti-carbon tax campaign in the North and Interior. Back then, folks in the North pretty much agreed the tax was unfair.

"It's like people complained about the GST when it was first introduced," Streeper said. "But nobody's complaining now.

Pollsters Mario Canseco, of Angus Reid Strategies, and Evi Mustel, of The Mustel Group, also said in interviews at the beginning of the campaign that the carbon tax doesn't seem to be catching on with the voters.

Lost in the carbon tax haze

But there are those who would like to see British Columbians pay more attention to the bigger question of climate change, an issue they feel is being lost in the carbon tax rhetoric.

Kevin Washbrook, of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change, is one.

"In the general public, I don't have a strong sense that [climate change] is a concern right now," he said in an interview. "I think the bigger picture is getting lost in this sort of partisan scrabbling over short term advantage."

What is needed is an agreement on broad principles, Washbrook said.

"I think if you sat the NDP and the Liberals down, they'd both agree we need to put a price on carbon emissions. It's just a question of how you do that."

Washbrook's group isn't endorsing any party's climate platform. Instead, they'd like to see a cooler, less partisan debate.

Not that there's much chance of that happening in the middle of an election campaign -- especially one in which the NDP has tried to use North America's first comprehensive carbon tax as a populist rallying point against the governing Liberals.

'Fix the tax': CCPA's Lee

The NDP's "axe the tax" campaign has drawn the ire of high profile experts like the University of Victoria's Andrew Weaver and environmentalists David Suzuki and Tzeporah Berman.

"The NDP chose a course of opposing the carbon tax, which was very controversial within the party from what I understand," said Marc Lee, of the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. "It was a political choice."

The carbon tax was one issue where the NDP believed it could get "serious traction" with voters, Lee said, "in particular in the Interior of the province where there are seats to be gained."

Lee, who has studied the effects of the carbon tax, describes himself as a "fix the tax" advocate, rather than an "axe the tax" man.

The Liberals' tax, he said, is too low, it doesn't cover all B.C.'s greenhouse gas emissions and it only goes to 2012. As well, as currently structured, the tax will penalize low-income British Columbians in the future.

Still, Lee has quarrelled with the NDP over what he calls its "misrepresentations" of the tax. The party's claim, for example, that the tax "lets big polluters off the hook" is "patently wrong," Lee says.

The case against the Liberals' version of the tax can be made quite well by sticking to the facts, he said.

There are some points in the NDP's climate change platform that Lee does like -- more money for public transportation, more money for energy-efficient retrofits and a hard cap on the emissions of big industrial polluters.

But when it comes to the carbon tax, the NDP "went over the top and turned this into this demonic tax," he said.

Carbon tax idea already damaged?

Having said that, Lee believes environmentalists are also overemphasizing the carbon tax, while downplaying some of the flaws in the rest of the Liberals' climate change plan.

"I think it's unfair of some of the environmental groups to be so singularly focused on the carbon tax as the litmus test for credibility on climate policy," he said.

The Liberals would be more deserving of the environmentalists' praise if they had put a moratorium on the development of the oil and gas industry -- "one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the province" -- or had scrapped the plans for a 10-lane Port Mann Bridge, Lee said.

"There are enough kind of blatant contradictions in other parts of the Liberal platform that completely swamp any impact that the carbon tax was going to have" on carbon emissions, Lee said.

He thinks the environmental movement is digging in its heels on the tax because it believes that if the carbon tax dies in B.C., no other North American government will touch it.

"My sense is that's already happened," he said. "There's a default aversion to taxes in the first place, which meant the carbon tax is barely viable in Canada or the United States, period."

B.C.'s experience, where the tax has being attacked by an Opposition that would be expected to support it, "would basically say to any politician, 'Stay away from this one,' " Lee said.

Cap-and-trade and its risks

The U.S. is going for a national cap-and-trade system rather than a carbon tax and it seems likely that Canada will join up with whatever the U.S. puts together.

"And we'd better hope that it's a well-designed system because cap and trade is very vulnerable to political pressure, to favoritism of certain industries, to gaming of the system, to speculation," said Lee. "The devil's very much in the details."

Although the NDP is pitching the abolition of the carbon tax as an economic stimulus, Lee cautions that such a move won't have much impact.

"The impact of tax cuts as stimulus tends to be pretty weak in general compared to public spending," Lee said.

In this fiscal year, the carbon tax is expected to bring in about $500 million, he said.

"Half a billion dollars in a provincial economy which is $200 billion -- that's what, a quarter of one per cent? And typically with tax cuts, less than a third actually gets spent.

"So yeah, there would be some stimulus to it, but it would be very, very small."

'Frustrated' with debate: Pembina's Horne

Lee added that any plan that puts a price on carbon emissions will be felt by the consumer: "Any actual plan that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, whether it's carbon tax, cap and trade or just regulation, is going to increase consumer prices somehow, some way."

At this point, he said, "I'll support anything that moves us in the right direction.... Too much has been focused on the carbon tax. I guess I feel a little frustrated watching this debate play out."

He's not the only one. Ask Matt Horne, of the Pembina Institute, what he thinks of B.C.'s climate change debate and he replies: "I'm a bit frustrated."

He said the institute is pleased with some of the steps the Liberal government has taken so far, but there is more to be done.

"The way the debate has been set up, we're not productively getting into those next steps," said Horne. "We're talking about staying where we are or taking steps backwards."

Suzuki, Pembina on NDP's platform

Horne said the institute likes some things about the NDP platform: the Green Bonds proposal, the commitment to continuing the moratorium on offshore drilling and the promise not to go ahead with coal-bed methane exploitation without community consultation.

But he was critical of the NDP's plan to drop the carbon tax, which covers about 76 per cent of the economy, in favour of a hard cap on the biggest industrial emitters. That hard cap, Horne said, would at best deal with only 32 per cent of the province's emissions until B.C. joins whatever cap-and-trade scheme the U.S. develops.

An analysis of the NDP climate change platform released by the Pembina Institute, the David Suzuki Foundation and ForestEthics says:

"The NDP election platform eliminates the foundation of the existing B.C. climate plan without offering an equivalent or improved replacement. The positive ideas offered are insufficient to compensate for the carbon tax's cancellation."

The U.S. plan might cover emissions across the economy, but it could end up being much narrower, Horne told The Tyee.

"Our perspective as an organization is we are agnostic between carbon tax, cap and trade or a combination of the two," he said. "The key point being that the system is applied economy wide."

NDP environment critic Shane Simpson told The Tyee that the party expects the hard cap will get it "probably about eight per cent" of the way towards the province's goal of reducing emissions levels by 33 per cent by 2020.

Conservatives: scrap carbon tax

Meanwhile, the B.C. Conservative Party is rejecting both the carbon tax and cap and trade.

"B.C. Conservatives will work to ensure that the future energy needs for British Columbia are provided for in a clean environment by supporting the development and utilization of new technologies such as tidal power, wind power, geothermal power and the development and production of biodiesel from waste wood, ethanol and hydrogen," the party's platform says.

The platform says the Conservatives are "the only party in B.C. proposing a balanced approach, combining a strong economy with effective environmental protection. This approach does not include a discriminatory punitive tax on consumption or carbon dioxide production."

Instead, the party said it will support "incentives for industry to develop new, clean technology."

Greens: scrap 'all Gateway projects'

As might be expected, the Green party has a lengthy climate change platform. It includes:

Green party energy critic Philip Stone told The Tyee Gateway should be scrapped and the money put into rail transit. Gateway, he said, "is going to dwarf any effect that a two-and-a-half-cent gas tax is going to have" on emissions.

Related Tyee stories:

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