Five myths about Canada’s carbon pricing plan

On Monday, the federal government announced plans for a price on carbon, beginning at $10 per tonne in 2018 and rising to $50 per tonne in 2022. Since the announcement, there have been all manner of claims about what it will mean for the provinces and for average Canadians. Here are some of the common myths – and the reality:

Myth 1: The announcement was shocking to the provinces.

Reality: Unless the provincial leaders have been in a cave for the past year, the announcement of a federal minimum carbon price should come as no surprise at all. Justin Trudeau and his team said throughout the election campaign that, if elected, one of their first actions would be to put a federal price on carbon. It was repeated after the election. It was a key discussion point in all federal-provincial meetings. It was stated in the Vancouver Accord on Clean Growth and Climate Change. It was signaled throughout the summer. And with a vote on ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement coming any day, it was pretty obvious the pricing announcement was imminent.

Myth 2: The decision was a unilateral move by the Trudeau government.

Reality: Not exactly. The provinces are being offered a framework that has been discussed for almost a year: there will be a minimum price set federally, but the provinces can do whatever they want, so long as their carbon pricing system at least meets the federal minimum. Yes, the minimum is unilateral, but otherwise, this is about as flexible as a federal “tax” could possibly be.

Myth 3: This is a federal government tax grab.

Reality: Flat out false. The proceeds from federal carbon tax – a tax only imposed if a province decides against creating its own pricing system – would be returned to the provinces.

Myth 4: The carbon price is not revenue-neutral / The carbon price will increase tax bills for Canadians.

Reality: Not necessarily. First, the provinces can choose their own carbon pricing system. So it can be revenue neutral, as in the case of British Columbia’s carbon tax. Second, even if a province refuses to implement its own pricing system, and is thus required to pay the federally required minimum tax, the proceeds come back to the province. The province could therefore choose to return it to the citizens.

Myth 5: The carbon price will cripple the resource industry.

Reality: Not really. Only companies that have been paying zero attention to science, Canadian politics, global trends, etc. over the past 20 years will be unprepared. A 2013 study of ten energy companies operating in Canada showed that seven of the ten had adopted a “shadow” carbon price for making decisions, and the other three had informally examined carbon pricing. The “shadow” prices ranged from $15 to $68 per tonne, right in the range proposed by the federal government. In other words, the companies have been preparing for a price on carbon for years. For resource and energy companies, having a system finally in place is much preferable to years of policy uncertainty.

To be clear, I’m not defending the structure of the system. The price is far too low, on its own, to bring Canada close to its target of a 30% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by the year 2030, let alone for Canada to play its part in avoiding the global temperature limits agreed to in Paris. But we have to start somewhere. You have to crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run.

The pricing plan may be a crawl. At least we are finally out of the crib.

I know what you did last summer, fieldwork edition

South TarawaOver the past summer, I had the opportunity to do fieldwork related to climate change and coral reefs in both Kiribati and the Marshall Islands.

I’ve put together a slideshow that gives a window into the effect of rising sea levels and warming temperatures on these atoll countries, as well as the joys and challenges of the research. Click on the first photo and then the “i” icon in the top right corner to watch the slideshow with the captions.

For more on what it is like to live in the Marshall Islands, I recommend listening to my student Sara Cannon’s interview with CBC’s Quirks and Quarks and reading her stories from the field. Sara spent the summer helping the Marshall Islands Marine Resource Authority with coral reef monitoring and some training programs. There are also a few dispatches from the Marshall Islands on this site.

If you’d like to help, we are collecting used scuba and snorkeling gear, as well as books, to donate to people in Kiribati. For more on this effort, see here.

Statement on greenhouse gas emissions associated with the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion

I delivered the following statement this morning at a meeting of the Ministerial Panel on the proposal to expand the Trans Mountain Oil Pipeline:

My name is Simon Donner and I work as an Associate Professor of Climatology in the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia. For the past 15 years, I have conducted research in the area of climate change science and policy.

I am here today to explain the effect of upstream greenhouse gas emissions due to the proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion on Canada’s international climate commitments following the Paris Climate Agreement.

Let me be clear at the outset. I am here as neither an opponent nor a proponent of the proposed activity. I am personally agnostic about the pipeline expansion. My statement speaks only to whether the project is consistent with Canada’s climate policy.

There are two key points in this statement:

First, the draft upstream emissions analysis conducted by Environment and Climate Change Canada features critical methodological shortcomings. These lead to incorrect conclusions about upstream emissions.

Second, the proposed pipeline expansion “locks in” future greenhouse gas emissions at a level that is not compatible with Canada’s international climate commitments, unless aggressive actions are taken to reduce net emissions from other sectors of the economy.

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Where to throw things on an atoll: Dispatch from the Marshall Islands

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“For God’s sake, do not go to Majuro!”

It was 2005, and I was on my way to do research in the central Pacific for the first time. The warning was the only ‘advice’ I received about the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and it came from the only person I had met who had been there: a retired American travelling quickly from country to country for the sole purpose of collecting as many different stamps as possible in his passport. With a trip already scheduled to Kiribati, and spooked a bit by the warning, I shortened the stop in Majuro to just a few days.

It was my loss. Majuro Atoll (top right) is a friendly and fascinating place. Our small team – Sara Cannon from my research group, Diane Thompson from Boston University and soon-to-be PhD student Emma Reed – just completed a research trip to Majuro and its neighbour Arno Atoll. We were there to study climate history and evaluate the effect of climate and local disturbances on the coral reefs. Continue reading