Hot! A carbon tax is a good tax – comment – A carbon tax is a good tax: Layton plays politics while Dion proposes a necessary ingredient to fight global warming
July 09, 2008. Lynn McDonald

A carbon tax is a good tax for two reasons.

One, fossils fuels are a “bad,” so that measures that discourage their use will help us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, and promote the switch to non-carbon, cleaner, alternatives.

Of course, a carbon tax alone won’t do this, for many measures are needed (and indeed have been proposed). A cap-and-trade scheme is an obvious complementary measure.

Contrary to what Jack Layton and the NDP have been saying, the two measures are not either-or, let alone good and evil alternatives, but each serves a function.

The particulars of Stéphane Dion’s carbon tax plan are beyond the scope of this short comment. My point is simply that the principle is right, and so is the promised “revenue neutrality.” Anyone who wants to raise taxes should argue that on its merits.

The second basic reason for supporting a carbon tax is that fossil fuels are also a “good,” an extremely valuable resource.

Biofuels may be a substitute for at least some energy purposes, but we know that increases in their use have already caused food shortages. The loss of forests to enable more biofuels to be grown further reduces the “carbon sink,” thus adding to greenhouse gas emissions.

Fossil fuels are indeed so valuable a resource that future generations will hate us for using them up so rapidly and to so little good effect. Yet hardly anyone recognizes this part of the argument (we need a “Leave Some for Us Party” to argue it).

Could we have a reality check? Remedial geology for the NDP and the Conservatives?

Fossil fuels are not taught in the agriculture department. Fossil fuels cannot be grown. They are not “produced.” Statements that we need “to produce more oil and gas to get gas prices down” are as off the mark as a demand for honest crooks and willing slaves.

Oil companies want us to think of fossil fuels as being as renewable as wheat or apples. Saying otherwise would spoil the party, the “energy boom,” that might better be called a “depletion boom.”

The oil and gas companies, no more than the alchemists of old who tried to “produce” gold out of iron, can in fact manufacture oil and gas. Fossil fuels are a one-time gift of nature.

The media could assist the debate by using more realistic language. They, and we all, should say “extraction industry” and say “extraction” or “depletion” when referring to the process.

The Alberta “Heritage Fund” is also a misnomer, although harder to change. Since its revenues depend on depleting a non-renewable resource, it should be called the “Heritage Depletion Fund.”

In the case of the tar sands (oil sands is too nice) the tragedy is even greater, for relatively clean oil and gas, and massive amounts of water, are used to process a resource dispersed in the sands. Perhaps future generations might find a way of extracting and processing it without wasting so much energy (and water). A very good reason for a moratorium on the whole project, as proposed by former premier Peter Lougheed.

Jack Layton wants us to believe that the NDP is defending the poor in its opposition to the carbon tax. Certainly measures are needed to return, especially to low-income Canadians, the equivalent amounts collected in a carbon tax, such as by a tax credit or lower taxes.

But does the NDP not realize that the poor are the worst hit by climate change? And will increasingly be harmed as global heating gets worse? Would Tommy Douglas have missed this?

Already there are environmental refugees and victims of drought and food shortages in Third World countries. In Canada traditional hunters (with very low incomes) have seen their livelihood harmed. What protection will the urban poor have as temperatures rise?

The NDP has historically been a leader in advocating social justice, but not now.

Admittedly, there are so many here-and-now interests lined up to argue for fast depletion (calling it “production”) and those most harmed have no voice in our political deliberations (like Third World peoples and future generations even in Canada).

Does the NDP believe that ordinary and poorer Canadians will be exempt from climate change, because they have been per capita less responsible for the emissions? Alas, justice will not exempt the morally worthy (or less culpable).

Our laws and morality were all developed before fossil fuel use began, and before the climate crisis was understood. So the issue is a tougher one to understand than the traditional social justice issues that the NDP pioneered, like public health care, pensions and human rights.

We all have to rethink the issue and the NDP does a disservice with its simplistic rejection of the carbon tax. All Canadians concerned with the environment and our long-term survival have a stake in a serious and effective climate change action plan.

The reduction goal should be based on what the best experts say. That is far beyond Kyoto, in the range of 80 per cent to 90 per cent reductions. Achieving it will require many changes to our lifestyles – we should start thinking of what.

A carbon tax must be a prominent feature of any realistic plan. The sooner the better, for much else needs doing too.

Lynn McDonald is university professor emerita at the University of Guelph, a former MP and environment critic of the NDP.


  1. Ah predictions 2 years, eh?I think Mr. Harper (PM Harper I shulod say) will soon realize that the GST reduction and saving is not as big of deal as he thinks, and doesn’t really affect businesses in a negative or positive way . and will come up with some real tax saving plans and incentives to keep Canadians happy. Taking that into consideration, Martin resigning party leadership, recession almost over, usa election in 2008, I think he’s headed for full term plus a few months up to the limit!Heck .. I was looking to see if the odds were out at William Hill Online on PM Harper’s future, but it’s too early they only have the 2008 USA presidential elections to bet on Did you know that Arnold Schwarzenegger is currently at 34:1 odds ? Mind you, the odds that Elvis is still alive is only 501:1 (disclaimer: not that I gamble or anything i was just curious)

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