We urgently need political leadership on climate change. It is time we stopped talking and did something that can make a difference.
Since vehicle emissions are responsible for between 25 and 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in North America, it is imperative that we act now to limit the damage caused to our environment by combustion engines.
The parliamentary budget officer’s (PBO) recent observation that the carbon tax does not appear to be working is probably correct. But it is true only because the PBO, and many others, has noted that a tax on carbon will be effective only if it actually changes behaviour. Given that gas prices fluctuate wildly, sometimes 10 to 15 cents a litre over a weekend, it is ludicrous to think a carbon tax of less than five cents a litre is going to change anyone’s driving habits.
A small carbon tax alone will not bring about the change we need. Gasoline is about $2.25 a litre in parts of Europe. Even with gas prices almost double what they are in Canada, there is little evidence that higher gas prices alone will lead to fewer cars on the road. The number of cars registered worldwide has almost double since 2000. If any tax is to be effective as a means of changing behaviour, it has to do more than inconvenience people; it has to hurt — financially. It has to start people looking for transportation options.
Among the options available to the federal government, the carbon tax was a very ineffective way to tackle the problem of climate change. In theory, 90 per cent of the new tax is to be rebated. So, according to the federal government, only 10 per cent of the new tax, or half a cent a litre, is going to help support programs that fight climate change. A simple one-cent per litre increase on the federal excise tax on gasoline would collect twice the amount of money for climate-change initiatives, and there would be no need for an additional layer of bureaucracy to implement a new tax.
The carbon tax is clearly too low, and there is no obvious strategy to transition to alternative means of transportation, such as electric vehicles. Carbon-tax revenue should be used to create the infrastructure needed to support the use of electric vehicles. Just as there were very few cars travelling across Canada until the Trans-Canada Highway was completed in 1962, most people will not buy an electric car until the infrastructure is in place to allow for travel throughout the province and the country.
Electric vehicles are tantalizingly close to becoming a dependable option, at least for most urban dwellers. Unfortunately, the government has not used the carbon tax as an opportunity to build the infrastructure to support alternatives. The government could also generate revenue to support the transition to non-fossil fuels by making car emissions more costly to consumers — for instance, by considering a tax on gas-guzzling engines in SUVs, trucks and large-engine cars.
In Turkey, for example, the equivalent of a fossil-fuel tax has resulted in a change in customer behaviour when it comes to new car purchases. Ninety-five per cent of all new car purchases in that country have engine displacement of 1.6 litres or less. What drove the change? If you buy a vehicle in Turkey with an engine bigger than 1.7 litres, you pay double the tax. And if you buy a vehicle with an engine greater than 2.0 litres, you pay even more.
An even better taxation approach, when it comes to combustion engines, might be to base the tax on vehicle emissions. The more you pollute, the more you pay.
The infrastructure we need can be in place in a matter of months. The magic solution: government support for installing charging stations for electric vehicles where people travel and work, and at gas stations across the country. Here are at least five ways to actually stop the excessive use of fossil fuels and limit the effect these emissions are having on the environment.
1. We need more public transportation. If we are going to make fossil fuel users pay, we also need to offer alternative methods for them to use if they change to more environmentally responsible modes of transportation. We need to give credit and more financial support to municipal transit systems that use electric buses or build alternative public-transportation systems.
2. We need to set a carbon tax that reflects the urgency of the problem (above 50 cents a litre) and implement a logical rebate system for low-income households — not one that goes to many people who can afford a tax on fossil fuels.
3. We need a vehicle registration fee that is based on the engine-displacement size. If you are determined to have a gas-guzzler that emits more carbon, you should be willing to pay for the cost of those higher emissions.
4. We should also consider banning gas-powered leaf blowers and similar gizmos that could be purchased or replaced with electric motors. (A single two-stroke engine produces pollution equivalent to that of 30 to 50 four-stroke automobiles.)
5. We need to build the infrastructure for electric vehicles, now. We need electric charging stations where people live.
It should not take a Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, to point out the obvious: "We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis." We cannot analyze or communicate our way out of the problem. Governments must act.
If we don’t do something, our grandchildren will wish we did.
Jerry Storie was the MLA for Flin Flon from 1981 to 1994, and held several provincial cabinet positions, including northern affairs, education and energy and mines. He served as a school superintendent from 1994 to 2004; until he retired in 2010, he was an associate professor and dean of education at Brandon University.