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Environment Minister Catherine McKenna touts Canada’s carbon price at international summit
April 15, 2019
Alex Ballingall

Every Canadian in every province now pays for carbon emissions that cause climate change.

That is the fraught, politically-charged reality since April 1, when Ottawa imposed its carbon tax “backstop” in four provinces that refused to match the federal minimum of $20 per tonne of emissions.

Federeal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna says Canada is two thirds of the way to meeting its greenhouse gas reduction target but that one of the challenges remains provinces, like Ontario, that backtrack.

Federal Conservatives and their ideological companions at Queen’s Park argue this hurts the economy and isn’t necessary to reduce emissions. New Democrats and the Green party contend Canada is lagging on climate action and should, among other things, eliminate federal subsidies to the oil and gas industry.

But Canada’s price, even as it climbs to $50 per tonne in 2022, is smaller than similar taxes in some of the 24 other countries that have set national carbon prices. Sweden’s tax is roughly $189 per tonne. In France, it’s $83 per tonne. And in its landmark report from October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said global carbon prices may need to be as high as several thousand dollars per tonne in 2030 if the world is to keep warming below 1.5 degrees C by the end of the century.

This week, Liberal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna attended the “Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition” in Washington, D.C., a summit of governments and private industry on the sidelines of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund governors meetings.

She spoke with the Star before leaving the U.S. capital.

What message did you hope to send by attending this conference?

The purpose of this group… is to talk about carbon pricing, to see what’s going on, also to share lessons learned. And there was a lot of interest in what Canada is doing, how we’re returning the revenues directly back into not only the province, but also to people. And that’s by law: 90 per cent of the revenues go back to individuals through taxes. They’re very interested in that, because how you use your revenues can help or hurt politically… Ours is using carbon pricing because it’s the most efficient way to reduce emissions, but also to make life affordable for folks. They have choices to save more money if they want by taking measures in their homes or how they get to work, transportation, to reduce emissions. Or not. But they will get the money back.

The IPCC report from October (says) if we’re going to keep warming to 1.5 degrees, the carbon tax … should be anywhere between $135 (US) to $5,500 (US) per tonne (by 2030). Do you agree that the carbon price that we’re going to have in 2022 will need to go up?

We’ve always said that pricing is only one of the tools in our tool box. So, we’ve got the price on pollution, but we’re also making historic investments in public transportation, and phasing out coal, and investing in renewables and investing in energy efficiency and clean-tech companies and innovation. So, I mean, we’ve taken an across the board approach. And our focus is really, OK, what’s effective, what is practical, and how do we do this in a way that ensures that life is affordable and you’re also creating good jobs and innovation in Canada.

But beyond 2022, is the carbon tax going to go up? Assuming, as we hear all the time, it’s the best, most efficient way to incentivize people away from pollution, wouldn’t it have to go up if we’re going to close the gap and hit our targets?

We’re committed to meeting our Paris Agreement target (to cut emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030). We’ve been clear about that, and we’re taking an across-the-board approach. The commitment is only to 2022, and that’s when we meet with provinces and territories to do a review (of Canada’s climate change framework). But there’s no intention to go up now.

It seems there’s a disconnect between the action experts say is needed to prevent the worst consequences of climate change, and the action that is politically possible for governments to do. What do you think about that?

Look, we’ve done a lot and we know we need to do more. We came in (to government), there was 10 years of inaction. We helped negotiate the Paris Agreement, then we negotiated with provinces and territories. We’re two thirds of the way to our target and we’re 11 years out… One of the challenges, of course, is when you have provinces like Ontario that backtrack. They do less, so they increase the challenge. But we are committed to it.

Why do think there is so much resistance, with Jason Kenney maybe on the cusp of winning in Alberta, what Doug Ford is doing in Ontario, other provinces that are skeptical of the efficacy of carbon pricing, or carbon taxes -- why do think there’s an audience for that?

I think they’re skeptical of climate action overall. They seem to be skeptical of the science that says the enormity of the challenge and how we need to act now. We have our climate change report that says Canada is warming at double the international average, and… they aren’t making decisions based on policy and evidence. We know
that carbon pricing works. We know that we need to take action. We know you can do it in an affordable way by giving the money back. But this generation of Conservative politicians wants to do less and less on climate change when the risks and the costs are enormous.

Assuming the polls are right and Kenney becomes Premier of Alberta, cancels the carbon tax in Alberta and lifts the cap on oilsands emissions, what can the Liberal government in Ottawa do? Wouldn’t that tear up the chance of Canada hitting its targets?

I’m not going to speculate on the Alberta election…We will deal with things as they come, but we’re going to continue to push. And that’s what we’ve found that, unfortunately, provinces didn’t step up -- some provinces, led by Conservative politicians, didn’t step up and they made it free to pollute. And we stepped in, put a price on pollution, but also did it in an affordable way.