Economists weigh in on deceptive carbon pricing messages

Economist Brenda Frank contributes to the ongoing battle of ideas about carbon pricing in Canada with his  January 9 blog : “Carbon pricing works even when emissions are rising”. Frank begins:  “An old, debunked argument against carbon taxes has flared up recently: If total emissions aren’t falling, the tax must not be working. Let’s quash that myth.”  Continuing the arguments he published in a 2017 blog, “The curious case of counterfactuals”, his central question is, “if emissions are still rising, how fast would they have been rising without a carbon price?”  He cites recent studies, such as “The Impact of British Columbia’s Carbon Tax on Residential Natural Gas Consumption” (in  Energy Economics, Dec. 2018), as well as  the extensive carbon pricing reports produced by the Ecofiscal Commission, most recently Clearing the Air: How carbon pricing helps Canada fight climate change (April 2018).  The  conclusion: carbon pricing is more “complicated than something you can fit in a tweet”, and  complex analysis demonstrates that it does work.

Marc Hafstead , U.S. economist and Director of the Carbon Pricing Initiative pursues a similar theme in  “Buyer Beware: An Analysis of the Latest Flawed Carbon Tax Report” ( November 28).   Hafstead contends that “some papers can introduce confusion and misinformation”, and demonstrates how this is done in  The Carbon Tax: Analysis of Six Potential Scenarios , a study commissioned by the Institute for Energy Research and conducted by Capital Alpha Partners.  Hafstead critiques the modelling assumptions and concludes they are flawed ; he also charges that the paper fails to explain its differences from the prevailing academic literature.

Even without Hafstead’s economic skills, one might be wary of the U.S. paper after a check of the DeSmog’s  Global Warming Disinformation Database , which provides mind-blowing detail about the financial and personnel connections between the Institute for Energy Research and  Koch Industries . DeSmog maintains records on organizations and individuals engaged in “climate change disinformation” in the U.S. and the United Kingdom.

Newfoundland and Labrador announces its “lax tax” on carbon

offshore oil rigA “ Made-in-Newfoundland and Labrador Approach to Carbon Pricing” was announced and  described in a press release on October 23 , with a carbon tax rate of $20 tonne starting on January 1, 2019.  The details are many, as published here . Exemptions are granted for consumers (e.g. for home heating fuel) , and for industry – specifically “for agriculture, fishing, forestry, offshore and mineral exploration, and methane gases from venting and fugitive emissions in the oil and gas sector.”  These exemptions make sense in light of the province’s Oil and Gas  growth strategy announced in February 2018,  Advance 2030 , which aims for 100 new exploration wells to be drilled by 2030.

Despite the weakness of the provincial plan, it has been accepted by the federal government – thus, Newfoundland will avoid the stricter regime which would have been imposed by the federal backstop plan in 2019.  For a brief overview: “Why the lax tax? Finance minister says Muskrat burden played role in carbon pricing” (CBC) . In depth analysis appears in  “Newfoundland’s carbon tax gives ‘free pass’ to offshore oil industry” in The Narwhal.   (Nov. 9)

Updating the political battle of carbon pricing in Canada

Justin TrudeauOn October 23,  Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the federal government will hold its resolve to impose a carbon pricing policy across all Canadian jurisdictions in 2019 – see the press release, “Government of Canada Putting a price on pollution”   (Oct. 23).  Key to the plan: the Climate Action Incentive, whereby all carbon revenue will go directly back to people in the provinces from which it was generated.  David Roberts of Vox hits the nail on the head with  “Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is betting his reelection on a carbon tax” (Oct. 24) , stating,  “It’s a thoughtful plan, remarkably simple, transparent, and economically sound for something cooked up in a politically fraught context. If it’s put into place (and stays in place), it would vault Canada to the head of the international pack on climate policy.”

Reaction from the Canadian mainstream media: From the Globe and Mail, an Editorial:  “For the Liberals, a spoonful of sugar helps the carbon tax go down” ;  “Arguments against the carbon tax boil down to a desire to do nothing” (Oct. 24)   by Campbell Clark ; “Carbon tax vs. climate change will be an epic contest” by John Ibbitson  and “Trudeau’s carbon tax rebate is smart – but complicated”  by Chris Ragan of the Ecofiscal Commission . From Andrew Coyne in the National Post: “Liberals’ carbon tax plan has its faults — but who has a better option?”  and from Chris Hall of the CBC, “How the Liberals hope to escape the ‘Green Shift’ curse in 2019”  (Oct.23)  .

The National Observer provides some detail to the complex calculations of the backstop rebates of the Climate Action Incentive, but the detail is at the government’s webpage, Pricing Pollution: How it will work  which provides links to individual explainers for each province and territory.

Other Responses: Rabble.ca Elizabeth May of the Green Party of Canada ;  Canadians for Clean Prosperity ;  and the Smart Prosperity Institute , which also provides a compilation of reaction and reports .

There seems to be general agreement that it is politics, not economics, which will determine support for the carbon plan.  Ontario Premier Doug Ford has been making the rounds with other Conservative politicians in Canada to coordinate their messaging and opposition to the federal carbon tax – culminating in the introduction of Bill No. 132—The Management and Reduction of Greenhouse Gases Amendment Act , 2018 in Saskatchewan on October 30, and on October 31, passage of Ontario’s Bill 4, The Cap and Trade Cancellation Act.  The National Observer describes the events of October 31 and summarizes the recent  political dance in “Doug Ford and Andrew Scheer play fast and loose with facts about carbon tax”  . Other press coverage: from the CBC:   “‘The worst tax ever’: Doug Ford and Jason Kenney hold campaign-style rally against carbon levy”  on Oct. 5 ;   “Doug Ford attacks ‘terrible tax’ on carbon alongside Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe” on Oct. 29; and  “Doug Ford meets Andrew Scheer as carbon tax war heats up”  on October 30, describing their meeting in Toronto.  The gist of their arguments:  the carbon tax is a money-grab which will “drive up the price of heating your home”, with Doug Ford stating “It’s just another Trudeau Liberal tax grab. It’s a job-killing, family-hurting tax. ”  After the rebate details were announced on October 23, Ford has added that the promised rebates are “a complete scam”, “trying to buy Canadians with their own money.”   But as iPolitics reported on October 26, “Ford gets his facts wrong while bashing federal carbon tax”  and  “Ford doubles down on falsehoods about federal carbon tax”  .  iPolitics cites the independent analysis of the carbon tax’s impact by  Ontario’s Financial Accountability Officer, Ontario financial office cap and tradewhich supports the federal government’s numbers, and differs from Premier Ford’s public statements.  Meanwhile, the Ontario government promises to release their climate plan in November,  according to the Toronto Star   (Oct. 29), and Andrew Scheer also promises a climate plan “in 183 days”.

Research and opinion support a carbon tax for Canada

Carbon taxes continue to be a hot topic in Canada for many reasons, including the October Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report , the Nobel Prize in Economics  to William Nordhaus, and the report from Ontario’s Financial Accountability Officer on October 16, which estimates that the cancelling the province’s cap and trade program will drive the provincial deficit up by $3 billion, ($841 million in the first fiscal year alone).  And as provinces rebel against the federal carbon pricing plans, the January 1 2019 deadline approaches, by which the federal government will impose its “backstop” carbon pricing on any province without it own equivalent carbon pricing regime in place.

In response to these developments, there are many responses.  Recent articles emphasize William Nordhaus’ work: for example, “Nordhaus Nobel Recognizes What We’ve Long Known: Carbon pricing works” by Scott Vaughan at the IISD ;  “Nobel award recognizes how economic forces can fight climate change” in The Conversation Canada (Oct. 9); “Hurricanes, hog manure and the dire need for carbon pricing” in The Conversation Canada (Oct. 14);  and “Opinion: To avoid catastrophic climate change we need carbon pricing” from the Ecofiscal Commission , one of Canada’s strongest proponents of carbon pricing.  From the horse’s mouth: “After Nobel in Economics, William Nordhaus Talks About Who’s Getting His Pollution-Tax Ideas Right”  (New York Times, Oct. 13),  in which William Nordhaus is interviewed by Coral Davenport and states:  “…. I think the model is British Columbia. .. It would have the right economic effects but politically not be so toxic. … British Columbia is not only well designed but has been politically successful.”

CARBON DIVIDENDS:  The issue of political acceptability of carbon taxes generated an academic discussion  in “Overcoming public resistance to carbon taxes” by Carattini  , Carvalho and  Fankhauser  in  WiRES Climate Change  in June 2018.  In Canada, a change in vocabulary in taking hold. “Carbon Dividends could save carbon pricing – and create a new national climate consensus”  say Mark Cameron (from Canadians for Clean Prosperity) and David McLaughlin (from the International Institute of Sustainable Development) in the Globe and Mail .   The commissioned studies released by   Canadians for Clean Prosperity in September showed  that most  households, regardless of income level, would receive more money in the form of carbon dividend cheques than they would pay in carbon taxes under the backstop plan.  They have produced estimates for Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and New Brunswick, and maintain an online petition at a website called  Canadians for Carbon Dividends  .

rocky road tableIn  “The Rocky Road to Canada-wide Carbon Pricing,”  released by the C.D. Howe Institute on October 17,  author Tracy Snoddon from Wilfred Laurier University offers recommendations on how the revenues should be distributed after January 1, 2019, when the minimum carbon price backstop comes into force.  The author estimates carbon revenues of $ 2.8 billion in 2019 if the backstop was implemented in Ontario, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island. She recommends that the federal government should impose the backstop price and return the revenues as an equal per-capita rebate to residents- with the justification that such an approach minimizes intrusion in provincial fiscal matters, reinforces the environmental goals  rather than revenue generation, and is most progressive in its  distributional impacts.  A summary appears in the C.D. Howe press release  and in  “C.D. Howe Institute throws its weight behind federal carbon tax” in the Globe and Mail (Oct. 19).

put a price on itFinally, a new organization launched in October. Put A Price On It Canada promotes carbon pricing as a solution to climate change – and asks “why does Canada need another group fighting for carbon pricing?”  The difference: it aspires to be a national network to empower students on university campuses – currently at Simon Fraser University, the University of Ottawa, University of Waterloo, and Carleton University.

So in response to the  National Observer Opinion piece on October 18, asking  “Is it time to torch the carbon tax debate?” , the answer seems to be a strong “no”.

Manitoba cancels its carbon tax, joining Ontario and Saskatchewan in opposition

On October 3, Manitoba’s Premier joined the Premiers of Ontario and Saskatchewan in opposing carbon taxes.  In  ” ‘We say no’: Manitoba defies Ottawa by killing its carbon tax plan” , the CBC reports that the government will introduce amending legislation in the week of October 8;  Its previous legislation, The Climate and Green Plan Implementation Act  (March 2018)  had set a carbon price of $25 per ton, and followed the Made-in-Manitoba Green Plan  submitted to fulfill the federal Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change agreement .  “The Drilldown: Carbon tax clash intensifies as Manitoba joins resistance”   in iPolitics  explains the Premier’s reasons;  “Feds on track to impose carbon price on growing number of provinces on Jan. 1“, also from iPolitics, gives more detail.