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National Carbon Pricing Shouldn't Be A Controversial Issue

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Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press

At this week's meeting of premiers in Whitehorse, the need for a national carbon price may once again be the subject of controversy and division. For casual observers this may be surprising, given the near unanimity among economists, climate change experts, and leaders in government and industry that putting a price on carbon is an essential tool to fight climate change. A price on carbon -- via a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system -- is widely agreed to be among the most efficient ways to tackle carbon emissions that create climate change.

Just four months ago, at a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Vancouver the premiers committed to a "[t]ransition to a low carbon economy by adopting a broad range of domestic measures, including carbon pricing mechanisms."

Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna has described carbon taxes as the "most efficient mechanisms" to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Royal Bank of Canada has vocalized support for a stringent and rising price on carbon. And a number of CEOs from major oil companies operating in Canada supported Alberta's decision to apply an economy-wide carbon tax.

So why the fights at the provincial level over something that everyone else seems to agree on? There are a number of reasons but none should prevent Canada from moving forward with a national carbon price.

First, there are some premiers -- OK maybe just one -- who refuse to acknowledge that climate change is happening. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, in his Speech from the Throne in May, characterized the struggle to reduce carbon emissions as "misguided dogma that has no basis in reality." If one doesn't believe a problem exists, every solution seems unnecessary.

Carbon pricing can and should be designed so that nobody and no province is left behind.

However, Saskatchewan has possibly the highest carbon emissions per capita in the world and that needs to change. As the world gets serious about climate action, the province will have to diversify its economy and energy sources and address its over-reliance on fossil fuels, regardless of the premier's opinion on the science of climate change.

Second, there are premiers with legitimate concerns that their provinces will be disproportionately impacted by a carbon price. Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski, the host of this week's meeting, has argued that the cost of living in the North is already too high, and that a carbon price would add to that cost. However, people and ecosystems in the North -- due to melting permafrost, melting sea ice, and warming that is happening twice as fast as the rest of the world -- are getting hammered by climate change. The costs of not addressing climate change are too high, so solutions are needed.

Carbon pricing can and should be designed so that nobody and no province is left behind. For example, revenue from the carbon price should be used to help low-income families who spend a higher portion of their income on energy costs. Funds should also be spent to help support clean technology companies and the adoption of renewable energy. Revenue should be used to assist remote and Northern communities to replace dirty and expensive diesel generators with cleaner sources of energy. This will reduce their carbon emissions and costs, as well as improve quality of life.

Finally, there are some premiers, like Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Quebec Premier Philip Couillard, who like carbon pricing so much that they have already implemented a system to price carbon emissions. They don't want their system disrupted. But a national policy can work with provincial systems already in place.

And a national price is coming. The prime minister promised as much this week, because the case for action is much stronger than the reasons for inaction. And the need is urgent. For 10 years Canada did nothing on climate change and we don't have any more time to waste.

Burning fossil fuels imposes costs on everyone. The cost of food is going up because climate change impacts our agricultural crops. Insurance costs more because of more extreme weather, such as the recent floods in Toronto and Calgary and the wildfires in Fort McMurray. Air pollution affects the health of Canadians and imposes costs on our health-care system. Every time that it has been studied, the same conclusion is reached: inaction is far more costly than action. And the longer we wait, the more costly it becomes.

Canada has a tremendous opportunity now. We have a federal government that wants to move forward on climate action and many willing premiers. It's time all our elected officials come together to create a safe climate future by offering incentives for innovation, more efficient use of energy, and greater investment in clean energy.

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