Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Election Issues: Ending Fossil Fuel Subsidies and Putting a Price on Carbon

With the federal election now underway, I haven’t been hearing much discussion in the mainstream media regarding issues. The Opposition parties in parliament have been trying to frame the election as necessary to deal with ethical issues, after voting a charge of Contempt of Parliament to bring down the government. Initially, it had seemed that the Conservatives were intent to run on their Election-ready budget, but the Conservatives appear to be more content to vilify the Opposition Liberals, NDP and Bloc over a planned coalition take-over of government after the election.

Perhaps what the other parties are talking about is of interest to Canadians. But what I’ve been hearing is that Canadians are growing frustrated with the posturing of the political parties, and instead are yearning to hear more about those parties’ policies, and about what MP’s would actually do once elected.

These sorts of discussions are the ones which we should be having during the election. That we’re not having them isn’t all the fault of the political parties. The mainstream media likes to report on the story-of-the-moment, which is so much easier to identify than a long-winded policy discussion. For example, which would a TV viewer of a national news program rather watch: a discussion about the environmental impacts of the Alberta tar sands, or how a precocious 2 year old stole the show behind the Prime Minister’s back? Kids and kittens continue to rule the day, and we are the worse off for it.

I’d like to go back to the proposed Federal Budget for a moment, as I anticipate that many of the goodies it proposed might be in the next budget, no matter which Party comes to power. One of my concerns about the budget is that the government has decided not to pursue its commitment made at the 2009 G20 Summit in Pittsburgh regarding subsidizing the fossil fuel industry.

Currently, the Government of Canada subsidizes fossil fuel industries by providing them with approximately $1 billion in tax breaks every year. That’s approximately the same amount of money which the government spent hosting the G20 summit in Toronto this past year. It was at the earlier G20 summit in Pittsburgh that Prime Minister Stephen Harper, along with other G20 leaders, agreed to phase out subsidies and tax breaks to companies producing oil, coal and natural gas.

Canada’s fossil fuel producing industries certainly aren’t in need of this hand-out, yet year after year, Canadian taxpayers help these companies accrue record-breaking profits. This misuse of our hard-earned tax dollars is intolerable. As the world moves towards a clean energy economy, Canada will continue to play catch-up. Our government’s investments in fossil fuel industries are helping facilitate the rapid expansion of the tar sands, which is our nation’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gas pollution.

Artificially low fossil fuel costs have been shown to encourage wasteful consumption, and act as a disincentive to investment in cleaner, greener forms of energy, such as wind, solar and biomass. Continuing investments in fossil fuel industries aren’t just bad for our environment, they are bad for our economy.

Currently, the Canadian dollar is trading on par with the U.S. dollar, and as our dollar continues to rise as a result of tar sands profits, we here in Ontario can expect to see our manufacturing sector, which consists largely of small and medium sized businesses, increasingly disadvantaged. The higher our dollar soars, the more likely job losses in Central Canada will soar along with it.

Taking serious action to address the global climate crisis is going to require making difficult choices. The fact is, if we are to have any hope of holding global warming at the all-important level of 2 degrees Celsius, we are going to have to begin making decisions to leave fossil fuels in the ground, or else we will run the risk of setting off climatic feedback loops leading to runaway warming.

Whether tar sands bitumen proves to be one of the resources we ultimately leave locked in the ground, the fact remains that our government can make an easy choice to help both Canada’s environment and economy, by choosing to end the $1 billion subsidy to rich oil companies.

So far, only the Green Party’s Leader Elizabeth May has been talking about the need to both put a price on carbon emissions, and to end the perverse subsidies to the fossil fuel industries. In fairness, NDP Leader Jack Layton continues to mention the need to end these subsidies, although we’ve yet to see what the NDP proposes to do about pricing emissions. While I’m sure that the NDP will have carbon pricing as a part of their platform, I certainly hope that the NDP doesn’t propose the costly and potentially not-very-useful “Cap and Trade” mechanism for pricing, as they did in the previous election.

A better approach would be to follow the Green Party of Canada’s lead, along with that of the Liberal provincial government of British Columbia, and place a direct fee on emissions. Carbon pricing is inevitable, but we need to make sure that we get the mechanism right. By imposing a fee, and offsetting the collection of revenues by reducing personal income taxes, the carbon fee would be revenue neutral to the government, while providing Canadians with more money in their pockets to make sensible choices when it comes to the purchase of goods and services.

Hiding the cost of carbon in the prices of goods and services without a corresponding offset in income taxes, or another method of providing real money back into the pockets of the public, would be incredibly detrimental to our economy. Yet, that’s what a Cap and Trade emissions trading scheme is likely to do. Unless the price of carbon is so low that the trading scheme becomes virtually useless at reducing emissions.

I’d rather be able to make choices for myself and my family regarding how to spend my own money. That’s the approach currently being used in B.C., and that’s what the Green Party is proposing. Tax shifting is a big component for moving Canada towards developing a smart economy. By taxing what is detrimental to Canadians (pollution) and not that which is beneficial (income taxes), and by eliminating perverse subsidies to fossil fuel industries, we’ll be moving Canada towards a cleaner, healthier future.

Right now, though, as our government continues to subsidize fossil fuel industries while cutting investments to renewables, it’s clear that there remains a lot of work to be done to move the nation forward to a point that we’re actually doing something to meet our international carbon reduction commitments which were made at Kyoto and Copenhagen, and reaffirmed just recently in Cancun.

A change in the composition of parliament will undoubtedly help. That’s why it’s going to be important to Canadians to elect Members of Parliament who are ready and willing to take a stand on climate change. I sincerely hope that Canada’s national political parties and the mainstream media decide that climate change discussions are actually a necessary part of the current election debate.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

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