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12/08/2017 14:27 EST | Updated 12/08/2017 14:29 EST

Canada's Political Divide Over Carbon Pricing Is Closing

The debate is turning away from whether or not to use market forces to combat climate change, to how this can be done most effectively.

In December 2016, 11 of 13 provincial and territorial governments to signed on the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, which outlined a national approach to dealing with this crucial issue. The centerpiece of the plan was a pledge to achieve national carbon pricing in 2018. Given that Canadian federalism often resembles a collection of politely warring principalities more then it does a coherent body politic, this was a significant political achievement.

Ross Woodhall via Getty Images

Detractors would point out, however, that the prime minister's benefited from a unique alignment of political stars in Canada's four largest provinces. Mr. Trudeau sat down across from liberal governments in B.C., Ontario, Quebec that had already enacted or proposed carbon pricing in their jurisdictions, and Alberta had just elected a NDP government eager to take action. This left Saskatchewan's Brad Wall, the "premier of the opposition," as the only real holdout. While Manitoba also declined to sign the framework, at the time their stated reasons for opting out had more to do with building leverage for upcoming negotiations on health care then with climate policy.

Was the Pan Canadian Framework a fluke, supported by a never-to-be-repeated combination of a prime minister still on a national honeymoon and a collection of premiers in Canada's largest provinces who believed in the same things he did — at least on the climate file?

There are signs that the support for carbon pricing demonstrated in the Pan-Canadian Framework process did represent a trend rather then a blip. In many parts of Canada, the current partisan divide is not about whether to use some kind of carbon pricing, but how it should implemented, what level of government gets to make those decisions and what happens to the revenue.

Manitoba and Saskatchewan are gearing up for a fight with the federal government.

In Quebec, political parties broadly support the province's cap and trade system, with disagreements focusing on how the program should be implemented.

When British Columbia went to the polls last spring, the issue being fought over between the lefty NDP and the right-leaning B.C. Liberals was about how quickly the province should increase the level of the tax.

In Ontario, the debate between the Liberals and the Conservatives on climate pricing leading up to the Spring 2018 election will be about what form it should take. Should the province stay with the province's existing carbon markets, as preferred by the Liberals and NDP, or should the province scrap the market and simply adopt the federal carbon tax, as Progressive Conservatives are arguing?

Manitoba and Saskatchewan are gearing up for a fight with the federal government, but again the principal at stake is not really about whether or not to have carbon pricing, but who gets to decide its form or level.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall.

The Progressive Conservative Government in Manitoba has announced a carbon tax $25 per tonne and may defend its right to keep at this level in court, despite a proposed federal mandate to increase it to $30 a tonne in 2020.

Saskatchewan is a trickier case. Premier Brad Wall has clearly stated that he does not want a carbon tax in the province. Yet Saskatchewan's recently released plan includes a regulation for large emitters that closely resembles Alberta's Specified Gas Emitters Regulation, a regulation that includes the option of paying a levy when a facility's emissions rise above a certain level. When SGER was first announced in Alberta in 2007, it was feted as North America's first carbon pricing policy. This may not be a form of carbon pricing that the federal government will accept, but you could argue that it is carbon pricing nonetheless.

Of course, the counter points are the Conservative Parties in Alberta and at the federal level, both of which have declared their intent to repeal their respective jurisdictions' current or proposed carbon taxes if they gain power. These are extremely important exceptions. Alberta is Canada's largest greenhouse gas emitter, and the federal government is driving much of the push for carbon pricing in the provinces. A repeal of either of these systems would be a serious blow to market-based approaches to regulating emission.

Yet bi-partisan acceptance of carbon pricing in B.C., Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and — if you squint your eyes and turn your head sideways — Saskatchewan indicates that partisan lines are shifting. It's evidence that increasingly the debate in Canada is turning away from whether or not to use market forces to combat climate change, to arguments about how this can be done most effectively.

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