Carbon tax review could lead to better future for B.C.

Op-ed - Feb. 29, 2012 - By Merran Smith, Matt Horne, Ian Bruce

Published in The Vancouver Sun ()

Imagine a B.C. with reduced traffic gridlock because public transit service gets better and faster every day. Imagine a B.C. where we spend half as much to heat our homes and buildings. Imagine a B.C. with businesses that compete successfully on a world stage that demands the highest quality. Imagine a B.C. where environmental innovation, training and knowledge are at the core of our economy.

The good news is that we can build this better B.C., and the way to do it is within reach.

Although the B.C. budget offered little in the way of a more innovative, greener economy, it did hand British Columbians an opportunity to build that future with the announcement that the B.C. carbon tax will be reviewed.

The review, if done well, could be a game changer for improving the quality of life in our province. To reach that potential, the process must be transparent, rely on credible information, and engage British Columbians from all walks of life.

As a starting point in the review, we need to remember why B.C. implemented the carbon tax in the first place. We know that global warming threatens to devastate our forests, our agriculture and our communities if we don’t transform the way we produce and use energy. The carbon tax was intended to be the first step toward that transformation by making polluting activities more expensive and green options more affordable.

Evidence already suggests B.C.’s public institutions, communities and businesses are starting to make changes because of the carbon tax. For example, UBC is phasing out fossil fuels for heating and instead is pursuing renewable energy. We also know that these positive examples aren’t yet standard practice, so B.C.’s greenhouse gas pollution is still going up and we’re not yet on track to accomplish what we set out to achieve. The carbon tax review needs to explore how the policy can be designed to help reach B.C.’s legislated emission goals.

A second topic for the review is whether all of the carbon tax revenue needs to be used to reduce other taxes. A strong case can be made for investing some of that revenue in job training and infrastructure projects such as transit. These are the types of investments needed to make our communities more enjoyable and healthier places to live while building a strong and innovative economy.

Lastly, the review process should ensure that B.C.’s carbon tax is fair. Ultimately, support for the carbon tax will continue to increase if families, communities and businesses from all parts of the province have an opportunity, and an expectation, to be part of the solution. Low-income households need to be able to make their homes more energy efficient and B.C. industries need to be able to invest in their facilities to become more competitive. Over time, especially as the carbon tax continues to increase, there will be challenges to equity and competitiveness. We need to confront those challenges with creative solutions and not let them derail us from our objectives.

Some critics might claim that enhancing the carbon tax and using it to invest in a better future would damage the economy because we’d be alone in implementing one. That's simply not true. While B.C. has been a leader, we are part of a growing pack. For example, Sweden, a jurisdiction with a similar size population and economy as B.C. introduced a carbon tax in 1992, and the country'seconomy has since grown 44 per cent while greenhouse gas emissions have dropped by nearly 10 per cent. Last year, the World Economic Forum ranked Sweden second in the world on economic competitiveness.

It's not just Sweden jumping on the green bandwagon. Norway, Denmark, Australia, Switzerland and others all have carbon taxes. The E.U. has created incentives for companies to reduce their emissions, and Korea, China, California and Quebec will be starting similar emissions cap programs soon. Furthermore, worldwide investment in clean energy totaled $243 billion in 2010, as many governments recognized the need to act on climate change, make the air cleaner and develop modern energy systems. B.C.'s abundant renewable energy resources, skilled workforce and strong engineering and knowledge sectors put the province in an ideal position to capitalize on this global opportunity.

At last, we have a win-win situation for both the environment and the economy.

With more ideas from British Columbians on what the future could hold for B.C.’s carbon tax, we could make that win-win a reality. Communities could see new investment and jobs, a balanced transportation system, reduced traffic congestion, cleaner air, more green spaces, energy savings, and, best of all, a better quality of life. But only if we demand it. We hope that British Columbians will engage in this conversation in the coming months so that we can all build a better future.

Ian Bruce is with the David Suzuki Foundation; Matt Horne with the Pembina Institute; Merran Smith is with Tides Canada.

Matt Horne
Matt Horne

Matt Horne was the Pembina Institute's associate regional director for British Columbia until 2016.


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