Powerful players count on corruption of ideal carbon tax

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Appeared in the Ottawa Sun, April 18, 2024
Powerful players count on corruption of ideal carbon tax

Prime Minister Trudeau recently whipped out the big guns of rhetoric and said the premiers of Alberta, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan are “misleading” Canadians and “not telling the truth” about the carbon tax. Also recently, a group of economists circulated a one-sided open letter extolling the virtues of carbon pricing.

Not to be left out, a few of us at the Fraser Institute recently debated whether the carbon tax should or could be reformed. Ross McKitrick and Elmira Aliakbari argued that while the existing carbon tax regime is badly marred by numerous greenhouse gas (GHG) regulations and mandates, is incompletely revenue-neutral, lacks uniformity across the economy and society, is set at an arbitrary price and so on, it remains repairable. “Of all the options,” they write, “it is widely acknowledged that a carbon tax allows the most flexibility and cost-effectiveness in the pursuit of society’s climate goals. The federal government has an opportunity to fix the shortcomings of its carbon tax plan and mitigate some of its associated economic costs.”

I argued, by contrast, that due to various incentives, Canada’s relevant decision-makers (politicians, regulators and big business) would all resist any reforms to the carbon tax that might bring it into the “ideal form” taught in schools of economics. To these groups, corruption of the “ideal carbon tax” is not a bug, it’s a feature.

Thus, governments face the constant allure of diverting tax revenues to favour one constituency over another. In the case of the carbon tax, Quebec is the big winner here. Atlantic Canada was also recently won by having its home heating oil exempted from carbon pricing (while out in the frosty plains, those using natural gas heating will feel the tax’s pinch).

Regulators, well, they live or die by the maintenance and growth of regulation. And when it comes to climate change, as McKitrick recently observed in a separate commentary, we’re not talking about only a few regulations. Canada has “clean fuel regulations, the oil-and-gas-sector emissions cap, the electricity sector coal phase-out, strict energy efficiency rules for new and existing buildings, new performance mandates for natural gas-fired generation plants, the regulatory blockade against liquified natural gas export facilities” and many more. All of these, he noted, are “boulders” blocking the implementation of an ideal carbon tax.

Finally, big business (such as Stellantis-LG, Volkswagen, Ford, Northvolt and others), which have been the recipients of subsidies for GHG-reducing activities, don’t want to see the driver of those subsidies (GHG regulations) repealed. And that’s only in the electric vehicle space. Governments also heavily subsidize wind and solar power businesses who get a 30 per cent investment tax credit though 2034. They also don’t want to see the underlying regulatory structures that justify the tax credit go away.

Clearly, all governments that tax GHG emissions divert some or all of the revenues raised into their general budgets, and none have removed regulations (or even reduced the rate of regulation) after implementing carbon-pricing. Yet many economists cling to the idea that carbon taxes are either fine as they are or can be reformed with modest tweaks. This is the great carbon-pricing will o’ the wisp, leading Canadian climate policy into a perilous swamp.