On consideration of life's two inevitables, most Bluenosers prefer death to taxes. That's why we elect so many conservative governments. We view new taxes with the same skepticism George Bush applies to climate change.
Same with all Canadians, actually. Liberal leader Stephane Dion's proposed new carbon tax raised ire across this land not seen since the CBC almost let Don Cherry go. Skyrocketing fuel prices haven't helped The Chosen Liberal's cause either, and even David Suzuki's support hasn't stopped the jeers from both sides of the political spectrum.
"It hurts the poor," says the left.
"It hurts competitiveness," says the right.
"It's not a tax increase it's a revenue neutral tax shift," say the Liberals.
Environmentalists have got to be happy that carbon taxes and "cap and trade" (which puts limits on how much CO2 businesses can emit, but allows low emitters to sell credits for their good behaviour to companies that are over their emissions cap) are being proposed and debated. After all, carbon taxes have existed throughout Scandinavia since the '90s, and those northern countries are meeting their Kyoto commitments. They also have some of the most competitive economies and lowest poverty rates in the world.
But the question remains as to whether such pollution and climate change disincentives can be applied in a province like ours, which is hypersensitive to tax increases (or shifts) and fuel prices. NDP environment critic Graham Steele doesn't think so. "This winter there will be a home heating crisis," he says. "No one will talk about measures to increase fuel prices."
Steele points out that 60 percent of Nova Scotians heat their homes with heating oil, one of the highest rates in the country. He says that adding to the "astronomical" increase expected in home heating costs with a carbon tax would be "just cruel" to folks with low to medium incomes. Canada's three northern premieres have rejected Dion's plan for the same reason.
Steele acknowledges that "carbon tax has more than one meaning. Jack Layton's plan, which I've looked at and studied, focuses on large final emitters. In Nova Scotia that would be Nova Scotia Power. And the more we can do to help wean them off their large carbon diet, the better."
Cheryl Ratchford, who is the Ecology Action Centre's new energy coordinator, agrees. She argues that an industrial carbon tax is needed to help Nova Scotia's shift away from oil dependency. "It would mean that Nova Scotia Power pays for the pollution it creates," she explains. "It makes renewable energy cheaper, and creates a shift away from coal toward renewables."
Ratchford says the revenue raised by a carbon tax on large emitters can be further invested in building retrofits, public transportation systems and energy efficient technologies. She is aware of the criticism of carbon tax schemes by anti-poverty advocates, but she adds that "there are definitely policies that can move toward protecting mid- and low-income Nova Scotians."
So what does NS Power, likely the primary target of any possible carbon tax in this province, think about the idea? Not much, one way or the other. "We're not waiting for a specific regimen," says Margaret Murphy, public affairs manager for our number one power provider.
She says her firm is already committed to a low carbon emission future, and has taken major strides in that direction. Murphy cites the company's investment in renewable energy, research and development into tidal power, a gas-from-landfill project in Mount Uniacke and attempts to re-capture waste heat at Tuft's Cove. "We need to position our company for the future," she says, whether there is a carbon tax or not.
While NS Power is unconcerned with potential carbon taxes, Graham Steele worries that "if we force Nova Scotia Power too fast prices will skyrocket. We need to transition" toward low carbon emissions. Steel also emphasizes the importance of an enforceable cap and trade system that provides rewards and incentives for companies that don't pollute.
Despite the controversy, there are indications Canada is ready for a carbon tax. A survey released by Harris-Decima in May had 61 percent of respondents favouring a business and consumer carbon tax. The Halifax Chamber of Commerce responded with a column in its Eco Solutionsnewsletter about preparing one's business for carbon tax.
Yet the province remains lukewarm to frigid about any form of carbon tax. According to environment minister Mark Parent, "A carbon tax is one of several options available to government but recent increases in energy costs would make it difficult to implement at this time." Parent adds that "government's legislated goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020" and that cap and trade is "just one of the options available to government when considering greenhouse gas emissions reductions."
Environmentalists, anti-poverty advocates and the business community are ready for the kind of modest carbon tax that puts the burden on industry to clean up its act. They see what our government is missing. Without enforceable carbon taxes and caps on industry, government will fail to meet its own modest goals on greenhouse gas emissions.