Pardon the reference, but it’s time Canadians confronted a certain inconvenient truth – it’s impossible to address the climate crisis while we continue to demand cheap fossil fuels. Gasoline is a depleting resource and its rising costs are here to stay. The only viable, long-term, solution is to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels while the costs are still manageable.
What we’re witnessing is an example of market failure, perhaps the most spectacular of its kind in historical memory. So long as the free market refuses to equate monetary and environmental costs, we will continue to experience the perverse side-effects of commerce on the environment which sustains us as a species. To rebalance the situation, we must make the economy work with, rather than against, our ecological imperatives. Government regulations alone will not do, as such measures will be met with hostility by industry, which will seek to attain minimal requirements. To invite comprehensive transformation, we must harness the power of market forces to further environmental stewardship. Simply put, the responsible choice must become the profitable choice, both for businesses and individuals.
Two broad methods have been proposed with this goal in mind: green tax-shifting and cap-and-trade. In a cap-and-trade system, the government regulates the levels of greenhouse gases industries may emit. Companies whose emissions fall below the cap are then allotted permits which they can sell to other businesses that have surpassed the limit. This trade has the benefit of instilling a profit motive into not polluting. But the cost of permits, differentiated caps for various sectors, and a plethora of additional calibrations all need to be decided in consultation with industry, meaning that an effective system can take years (and much trial and error) to establish. The other significant downfall, aside from the complex bureaucracy, is that it only targets industrial polluters, who only constitute a portion of our overall emissions (in Quebec, a mere 34 per cent by the most recent estimates, compared to the 37 per cent attributed to transportation).
To alter individual behaviour immediately we must turn to green tax-shifting. In essence, a green tax is levied on all carbon emissions (hence a carbon tax), the revenue of which is returned to citizens in the form of income tax cuts; making it revenue-neutral. While the tax cuts aim to stimulate the economy, and compensate for any higher energy costs, citizens who make ecologically responsible choices will benefit further.
In this campaign, the NDP has targeted large industrial emitters exclusively, gleefully whipping their corporate scapegoats while ignoring environmentally irresponsible citizens. Anyone who pays more than lip service to the environment however should recognize that we as individuals must also change our ways. And, targeting people’s pocketbooks is the most effective way of altering their behaviour. The New Democrats, hobbled by the populist pandering of their leader, Jack Layton, have so far been unwilling to speak this unpopular truth. So, the party that was once the unqualified defender of the environment has now ceded this territory to the Liberals and the Greens.
This sad fact is attested to by the latest environmental report card issued by the Sierra Club of Canada and which rates the platforms of the various political parties. In its 2004 election report card, the NDP garnered the top spot with an A+, ahead of both the Greens (A) and the Liberals (B). This election however, the top spot was awarded to the Green Party with an A-, with the Liberals close behind with a B+ and the NDP trailing in third place with a B. The Conservatives, needless to say, failed miserably with Fs in both instances.
The environmental sands have shifted. Whether voters will take note remains to be seen.