04/18/2013 06:01 EDT | Updated 06/18/2013 05:12 EDT

Carbon tax debate should begin, ex-Quebec premier says

The time is ripe for the Canadian government to start the conversation about introducing a carbon tax, former Quebec premier Jean Charest says.

"Yes, I definitely believe that at this point there is an opportunity for us to recast the discussion," Charest said Wednesday evening at an event in Ottawa. He holds that position because U.S. President Barack Obama has taken up the fight against climate change again.

Charest was part of a panel discussion sponsored by public policy think-tank Canada 2020 on the subject of carbon pricing. He was joined on the panel by Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, UBC professor Kathryn Harrison, former Syncrude oil company CEO Eric Newell, and former Republican congressman Bob Inglis.

The panelists all agreed carbon needs to be priced and that the best way to do it is with a tax.

"Price carbon. Eliminate all subsidies. Pair the pricing with a reduction in some other tax. Make it a border-adjustable tax so you don't decimate domestic manufacturing. And then watch the free enterprise system deliver solutions," explained Inglis, who is also executive director at the Energy and Enterprise Institute, an American think tank. His views on carbon taxation cost him the Republican nomination in his South Carolina district in 2010.

Inglis described the price signal that a carbon tax would send as "magic." Newell agreed with him and believed industry is ready to pay up.

"I think the industry is going to step up and say, 'We've got to take responsibility,' and if we do it in a way that makes sense with a clear economic basis, with a strong carbon price signal, the private sector will take over. Free enterprise works," said Newell, who currently chairs Alberta's Climate Change and Emissions Management Corporation. That organization manages funds generated by the province's carbon tax. Alberta's carbon tax is directed towards developing technologies that will allow industry to reduce its emissions.

Despite the agreement among the panelists on the need for, and apparent inevitability of, a carbon tax, May felt the debate was taking place in a leadership vacuum. She likened the talk to a debate over chemotherapy or radiation when nobody wants to talk about the cancer. She also laid the responsibility for the current situation squarely at the feet of the Conservative government.

"We have got to have a grown-up conversation about climate change about the threats that it imposes to Canada, and we've got to do it now," May said.