Manitoba can lead climate debate

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When it comes to climate change, Canadian premiers may be bucking a trend of regional disputes and posturing, particularly when it comes to a national energy strategy. Several weeks ago in Charlottetown, P.E.I., Canadian premiers produced a framework for a national energy strategy with climate change figuring prominently. The new framework recognized the need for Canada to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and transition to a low-carbon economy.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/10/2014 (2901 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When it comes to climate change, Canadian premiers may be bucking a trend of regional disputes and posturing, particularly when it comes to a national energy strategy. Several weeks ago in Charlottetown, P.E.I., Canadian premiers produced a framework for a national energy strategy with climate change figuring prominently. The new framework recognized the need for Canada to reduce its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and transition to a low-carbon economy.

Manitoba is playing a key role in this component of the new plan as Premier Greg Selinger leads the working group tackling sustainability and conservation issues. While the province should be lauded for its work and leadership on the energy strategy, it is also important to remember Manitoba has played the role of climate-change champion in the country before.

It may seem like a distant memory now, but in the 2000s, the province was viewed as a leader in Canada and North America on climate change. When Canadian premiers met in 2007, Manitoba was part of a coalition of provinces pushing for an ambitious climate-change agenda, including a national cap-and-trade system. Manitoba also joined international arrangements pursuing similar objectives such as the Western Climate Initiative; you may remember then-premier Gary Doer making public appearances at climate-change events across the continent alongside such high-profile American leaders as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Janet Napolitano. But the economic recession took the wind out of the climate sails across North America, and the commitments made through these collaborative initiatives have largely gone unfulfilled.

Once others started to slow or retreat on climate change, Manitoba quickly followed suit and moved away from its leadership position. While the government is taking some important actions, such as reducing coal use in the province and developing reporting regulations for emitters, it has steered away from the ambitious course set in the 2000s. To truly be at the forefront of climate-change policy in Canada and North America, Manitoba needs to look at what it can do within the province to back up its leadership and set an example for other jurisdictions.

The argument frequently raised against taking greater action on climate change in Manitoba is the province represents such a small portion of Canadian and North American GHG emissions, it would do little to address climate change while risking damage to the economy. But as the government has said for years, Manitoba has much to benefit by leading the push toward a low-carbon economy with large low-emitting hydroelectricity resources and expertise in niche areas such as geothermal technology. If Manitoba really wants to be a leader and push other jurisdictions to take action, however, it needs to demonstrate it is willing to do so itself.

One way the Manitoba government could show it is serious about climate change would be to introduce a carbon levy, such as the one in place in B.C., which would target emissions from the transportation sector, the largest source of GHG emissions in the province.

Given the recent controversy over the increase in the provincial sales tax, one could argue the last thing the province and the government need is to propose what many will view as another tax increase.

However, B.C.’s policy is revenue neutral, meaning the province must offset all the money it generates with cuts to personal and business taxes. The basic idea is to shift taxes away from activities you want to encourage, such as growing household and business incomes, toward those you do not, such as burning fossil fuels. This may be particularly interesting for a government that has indicated its commitment to reducing taxes on individuals and small business over the last decade.

B.C.’s experience shows the policy is relatively easy and inexpensive to administer because it uses existing motor-fuel tax infrastructure and, most importantly, the policy appears to be working. A recent study by Sustainable Prosperity, a green economy think-tank in Ottawa, shows the B.C. carbon tax has contributed to reduced fuel use in the province without negatively affecting economic growth.

Of course, the impact of such a levy in Manitoba needs to be considered carefully, taking into account differences between provincial economies. There is no reason, however, that a policy that appears to be effective should be, as Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson called it, the third rail of Canadian politics where no government will even broach the subject. In Manitoba, the policy could reduce GHG emissions and signal to the rest of the country the province is ready to lead the charge toward a low-carbon economy.


Brendan Boyd is a PhD candidate in the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria and a former resident of Manitoba.

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