B.C.'s carbon tax a real-life rebuttal to carbon pricing's political opponents, some experts say

After the carbon tax made headlines at this week's premiers' meeting, it's worth taking a closer look at the birthplace of North America's oldest carbon pricing scheme: British Columbia.

Premiers’ meeting renewed focus on carbon tax after Ontario joined Saskatchewan to oppose it

Experts say the carbon tax policy has been beneficial to B.C. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

After the carbon tax made headlines at this week's premiers' meeting, it's worth taking a closer look at the birthplace of North America's oldest carbon pricing scheme: British Columbia.

This week, Saskatchewan and Ontario officially joined forces against the federal government's proposal for a national carbon pricing policy.

Saskatchewan has been at the forefront of the anti-carbon pricing movement. Its premier, Scott Moe, called the carbon tax policy "flawed."

"It doesn't reduce emissions. It costs people in the province money and it costs our industries competitiveness," Moe said July 12.

He found an ally in newly elected Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who has promised to get rid of Ontario's cap and trade carbon pricing system.

Ford, speaking to reporters on July 13, called the carbon tax "the worst tax that any government could put on businesses."

But this political commentary is contrary to what many experts say — especially when it comes to B.C. 

'Unequivocally' effective

Ten years ago, the province became the first jurisdiction in North America to implement a carbon tax. Since then, B.C.'s tax has attracted significant international media attention and academic scrutiny.

The Economist noted B.C.'s economy had "kept pace with the rest of the country" since the introduction of the tax. In 2016, The New York Times declared the tax "worked as advertised."

Research by University of British Columbia professors Werner Antweiler and Sumeet Gulati also found the carbon tax policy to be beneficial.

"My research has shown unequivocally that it is effective," Gulati said. "In transportation, it has reduced gasoline consumption. It has made people buy more fuel efficient cars."

In their 2016 paper, they found per capita gasoline demand in B.C. decreased by close to 15 per cent between 2007 and 2014. They note their findings are in line with other major academic research on B.C.'s carbon tax.

The emissions criticism

One of the criticisms of the carbon tax, including that from Saskatchewan's premier, is that it does not reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

According to Brian Murray, the director of the Duke University Energy Initiative, whose 2015 paper focused on B.C.'s carbon tax , emissions have dropped between five and 15 per cent since it was implemented.

How much greenhouse gas emissions are reduced is one variable in the carbon pricing scheme. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images )

However, he agrees it is hard to gauge how effective the carbon tax has been on reducing those emissions.

"[There] hasn't been a huge decline in emissions in British Columbia but it seems very likely to me that emissions would have continued to increase pretty dramatically in the province had the carbon tax not been put into place," Murray said.

He says the variability in emissions is a function of the carbon tax itself.

In carbon pricing, he explained, there are two variables you can control: the price of carbon (like a carbon tax) or the amount of emissions (as in a cap and trade system).

"Are you going to fix the price and allow emissions to vary or are you going to fix emissions and allow the price to vary? A lot of jurisdictions have chosen to go with the latter because they've been trying to achieve quantitative targets," Murray said.

A question of politics

Kathryn Harrison, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, says a lot of the rhetoric against the carbon tax is political posturing.

"It's not surprising that [Saskatchewan] would be the province that led the charge because their per capita emissions of greenhouse gases is more than three times the national average and the highest of any province," Harrison said.

"In Ontario's case ... it is about Doug Ford speaking to his base and stirring up popular opposition to anything that would increase the price of electricity or gasoline."

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, left, and Ontario Premier Doug Ford have joined forces against the federal carbon pricing policy. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Gulati also concurred, calling the carbon tax "an easy target for political activism."

"Everybody feels like it's punitive and unfair to increase the price of gasoline," Harrison said. "It is easy to fight a carbon tax."

Despite that, the movement for carbon pricing seems to be growing.

Murray notes nearly 40 jurisdictions around the world have adopted some sort of carbon pricing scheme. He says if China approves carbon pricing as a national policy next year, a quarter of global emissions will be under a carbon price regime.

"Those that argue that carbon pricing by it's very definition is a killer to the economy just don't match up well with what we've seen these economies do."

Read more from CBC British Columbia

With files from The Early Edition