Politics

Conservative leadership candidates jockey for position on the carbon tax

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government prepares to hike the federal carbon tax another ten dollars per tonne of emissions on Friday, the leading Conservative leadership candidates all agree on one thing — it's the wrong move. But that's where their consensus ends.

The leading candidates agree on cancelling the scheduled hike — but not on what should come next

Conservative leadership candidates (left to right) Pierre Poilievre, Leslyn Lewis, Jean Charest, Roman Baber and Patrick Brown. (Blair Gable/Reuters, Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press, Justin Tang/The Canadian Press, The Canadian Press, Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government prepares to hike the federal carbon tax another ten dollars per tonne of emissions on Friday, the leading Conservative leadership candidates all agree on one thing — it's the wrong move.

But that's where their consensus ends. Questions about what Canada should do with carbon pricing, financial offsets to consumers and the broader fight against climate change are still very much up for debate among Conservative leadership candidates. In many cases, the candidates' master plans are still being written.

And as cost-of-living issues clash with Canadians' anxiety about climate change, those plans could help decide who has the best shot at winning over both Conservatives and the electorate.

Poilievre holds the axe

Pierre Poilievre has been shouting his answer to the carbon tax question from the rooftops. On Thursday night, he's holding an event in Ottawa he's calling the "Axe the Carbon Tax" rally.

And he's taken this polarizing issue a step further than his opponents. Instead of simply attacking the Liberals, Poilievre has taken to calling the policy the "Trudeau-Charest-Brown" carbon tax.

While he was premier of Quebec, leadership candidate Jean Charest brought in a cap-and-trade carbon pricing system that effectively put a price on carbon pollution. Patrick Brown, another of Poilievre's opponents, called for a price on carbon while leading the Ontario Progressive Conservatives.

Both Brown and Charest have said they oppose the upcoming federal hike.

The federal Liberals first introduced a national price on carbon in 2018. The federal policy allows provinces and territories to design their own carbon pricing systems, but imposes the carbon tax in jurisdictions that do not introduce carbon pricing.

On Apr 1, 2022, the tax will rise to $50 per tonne of greenhouse gas emissions. It's slated to rise to $170 a tonne by 2030.

Pierre Poilievre has tried to tie his leadership rivals to the carbon tax. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

Canadians under the federal carbon pricing regime receive benefit payments to compensate for higher prices. Starting in July 2022, Canadians will receive the Climate Action Incentive Payment automatically every three months.

Poilievre doesn't simply want to stop the latest hike — he wants to kill the tax altogether. At a news conference at a Saskatchewan tractor manufacturer in early March, he said there are "countless" ways to combat climate change without carbon pricing.

Thousands of economists, including Nobel prize winners, have argued that a carbon tax is the most effective means of quickly reducing emissions.

Many economists argue carbon pricing creates commercial incentives for non-emitting energy sources. (Robert Short/CBC)

In lieu of a tax, Poilievre has said he'd put in place clear targets for emissions reductions and let provinces decide how to get there.

Poilievre also has talked about the virtues of carbon-capture and storage technologies and small modular nuclear reactors. He's also proposing a ban on oil imports from "dictatorships" that don't meet Canada's environmental or ethical standards.

Charest to unveil environmental platform in May

Charest doesn't have plans for a rally or a social media splash targeting the carbon tax. He has tried, however, to make his opposition to the upcoming rate hike clear to Conservatives.

In an opinion piece in the Toronto Sun, Charest argued that "we are in a cost-of-living crisis in this country" and "a carbon tax hike at this time will only hurt struggling families and businesses."

Jean Charest has said a government led by him would employ carbon pricing. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

Charest isn't abandoning carbon pricing altogether. In various media interviews, he's said his plans for governing will include a price on carbon. While Charest has suggested carbon pricing should target industry rather than the retail level and shouldn't penalize rural Canadians, he hasn't gotten into specifics.

Charest also has talked about the merits of emissions-reducing energy sources and technologies, such as biofuels, carbon sequestration and small modular nuclear reactors.

Charest's campaign says he'll unveil his broader plan for the environment in early May.

Brown says he won't repeat past mistake on carbon tax

While he supported carbon pricing as Ontario Progressive Conservative leader, Brown also has spoken out against the April 1 hike.

He wrote to Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland in early March asking her to reconsider, citing rising energy costs and economic upheaval.

Patrick Brown has said he intends to consult the party on climate policy. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

During his campaign launch speech, Brown told supporters that Conservatives care about lowering greenhouse gas emissions and the Conservative Party must be part of the solution to climate change.

But Brown also said he's learned "from experience" that it's "not the right approach" to impose a climate plan without consulting with party members or caucus.

He has pledged to hold party-wide consultations on the environment if he wins the leadership.

Lewis opposes tax

Leslyn Lewis joins Poilievre in arguing the federal carbon tax should be scrapped.

Lewis, who has a PhD in international law, obtained her masters in environmental studies and has written about the merits of clean energy in sub-Saharan Africa.

In 2020, she tweeted that carbon pricing is "a fake term that makes us feel we are doing something for the environment." She argued that the carbon tax is a wealth tax that doesn't change behaviour. 

Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Romer told the CBC that behavioural changes will take place over time as the carbon tax rate steadily increases because "people will see that there's a big profit to be made from figuring out ways to supply energy where they can do it without incurring the tax."

Lewis's campaign said more details of her environmental platform will emerge later in the leadership race.

Conservatives will choose their next leader on Sept 10. Other elected officials also have announced they're running for the top job, including MPs Scott Aitchison and Marc Dalton and Ontario independent MPP Roman Baber.

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