Carbon-cutting strategy should take a couple of pages from the campaign against smoking

The fight to phase out smoking was a public policy success, and two government actions in particular are worth emulating when it comes to reducing carbon emissions, writes Eric Campbell.

Two particular government anti-smoking actions are worth emulating when it comes to reducing carbon emissions

Cars and trucks are responsible for almost one quarter of all of Canada's carbon emissions. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

This column is an opinion by Eric Campbell, the host of Smart Prosperity: The Podcast, an associate with the Smart Prosperity Institute in Ottawa, and a former advisor to Canada's environment minister. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

In 1965, about half of all Canadians smoked. Now it's less than 15 per cent. That's almost 13 million fewer smokers today than we otherwise might have had, which in turn has led to longer lives and massive economic benefits. It's what we might call an all-round Team Canada victory.

Now let's do the same for climate pollution.

Canadians concerned about our country's slow progress on carbon emissions might be comforted to know that the last time we undertook a massive transformation in public behaviour, it too was a decades-long battle.

Like climate change, the fight to reduce smoking had to fend off opposition from entrenched industries, persevere through multiple court challenges, and endure years of political wrangling. Like climate change, these obstacles resulted in a prolonged lag between the moment when a scientific consensus emerged and the moment when we started to take effective action.

But, ultimately, the fight to phase out smoking was a wholesale public policy success. Two government actions in particular are worth emulating when it comes to Canada's fight to cut climate pollution.

The No. 1 thing we did to reduce smoking was to tax the heck out of it.

Between 1982 and 1992, Canadian governments increased taxes on tobacco by 500 per cent. That contributed to a staggering 40 per cent drop in smoking. Governments renewed their tax increases again in 2001, to the point that federal and provincial excise taxes now make up close to two thirds of the cost of a cigarette.

The takeaway isn't exactly earth shattering: making something a lot more expensive reduces the demand for it.

WATCH | Supreme Court rules in favour of national carbon tax:

Supreme Court rules in favour of national carbon tax

1 year ago
Duration 4:46
As the Liberal government savours the Supreme Court decision in favour of the federal carbon tax, the three provinces that fought against it figure out their options and businesses examine the ramifications.

On this count, Canada's fight against climate pollution is getting up to speed. The provincial, and now federal, carbon taxes that have dotted the Canadian landscape since 2008 attempt to do the same thing. By raising the cost of gasoline, diesel and natural gas, we can efficiently lower demand for these polluting fuels. With a significant caveat: the price increase needs to be big enough to really notice.

Last December, the federal government committed to a steep rise in the minimum carbon price from $30 per tonne in 2020 to $170 in 2030. That's more than a 500 per cent tax increase over 10 years. Sound familiar?

The second thing we did to draw down tobacco use was to regulate the heck out of its advertising.

The Tobacco Products Control Act of 1988 and Tobacco Act of 1997 effectively disabled the billions of dollars spent by big tobacco to recruit new smokers. Without the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel seducing Canadians through TV spots, full-page spreads, celebrity endorsements and event sponsorships, the product lost its sizzle.

We should apply those same sorts of rules to the things that emit climate pollution.

Let's start with the gas-guzzling SUVs, trucks and cars that are responsible for almost one quarter of all of Canada's emissions. In fact, transportation is the second biggest source of carbon emissions, behind only the oil and gas industry, which of course generates its emissions producing the very fuels we put into our polluting vehicles.

Transportation is the second biggest source of carbon emissions when measured by economic sector in Canada. (Brian Morris/CBC)

Like tobacco, the auto industry spends big on advertising. It has the highest ad spend after the retail sector, wooing new buyers with dubious ads that promote gas guzzlers as modern and hip.

To bring down the roughly 35 million petroleum-fuelled vehicles on our roads, our governments should jam the auto advertising machine. The United Kingdom, Sweden, Belgium and Australia have all set positive examples we could follow in this regard.

Every time we see an ad for a gasoline-powered SUV, it should feature a lengthy disclaimer reminding us of its brutal environmental impacts.

And then let's prohibit their advertising altogether, leaving more space to market the electric vehicles that are the future.

As Canadians, we've successfully managed a massive change in public behaviour before. We can similarly break our climate pollution habit. Let's ensure that the next generation talks about our gas-guzzling ways the same way we now gawp at how our parents smoked.


Eric Campbell is the host of Smart Prosperity: The Podcast, an associate with the Smart Prosperity Institute in Ottawa, and a former advisor to Canada’s environment minister.


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