David Staples: New Conservative carbon plan raises from the dead that party's reputation on climate change

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The new federal Conservative carbon plan is a massive political gamble.

After years of fighting hard against consumer carbon pricing, the Conservatives have reversed direction. Leader Erin O’Toole is now proposing a clever scheme of his own and doing so in opposition to many in his own base.

He’s rolling the dice like we haven’t seen a Conservative leader do in decades. His move represents either a quick end to his leadership or his first big step in a serious run to be the next prime minister.

It’s too early to guess on that outcome but it’s already evident that O’Toole’s new plan immediately raises from the dead the reputation of the federal Conservative party on the key issue of climate change.

O’Toole has succeeded at what he desperately needed to do, which was to shake the box, to dramatically change the narrative that the Conservative party is nothing but a bunch of climate-change-denying dinosaurs, a gang of good, old boys in trucks and SUVs roaring on by in the passing lane, filling three shopping carts at Costco, and hankering for the days when Don Cherry still told us all what was what on TV.

And political considerations aside, O’Toole’s plan is excellent policy.

Most crucially, experts in climate change modelling, such as the Navius Research group, say it should achieve the same emissions reductions as the Trudeau Liberal’s plan.

The experts give O’Toole’s plan generally positive reviews, even as they still debate its pros and cons. As the University of Alberta’s Andrew Leach, architect of the provincial NDP’s carbon tax, put it, “Let me emphasize how thrilled I am that we have a CPC (Canadian Conservative Party) carbon pricing plan backed by professional modelling and that we can fight about details.”

And Dale Beugin, vice-president of research and analysis for the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices,
said, “Credit where credit is due for a serious plan. They’ve used modelling to ensure no magical thinking. They’re relying on policies that will drive real emissions reductions.”

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Neither the Liberals nor O’Toole will refer to their consumer carbon pricing as a carbon tax. But all I know is that the price is paid at the pumps. It sure feels like a tax.

Instead, O’Toole calls his tax a “personal low carbon savings account.” Essentially, you earn points when you pay the tax, then get a rebate when you buy goods that lower emissions, items such as a transit pass, an efficient furnace, or an electric vehicle.

O’Toole will cap the price at $50 per tonne, while the Liberals will raise their own price to $170 per tonne by 2030

To cut the same amount of emissions as the Liberals, the Conservatives are now accepting a package of flexible regulations, such as supporting a clean fuel standard to lower the carbon intensity of transportation fuels, and also requiring 30 per cent of light-duty vehicles sold to be zero emissions by 2030.

“The Conservatives have set this package of flexible regulations where they will also achieve the Paris target if they implement them,” said Prof. Mark Jaccard, a climate policy expert at Simon Fraser University.

O’Toole proposes a few strategies that should be big winners with Conservative voters. For one, when it comes to industrial emissions he will tie Canada’s industrial carbon price to that of Canada’s biggest trading partners, the European Union and the United States. “We cannot ignore the fact that our largest and most integrated trading partner, the United States, does not yet have a national carbon pricing system,” O’Toole said in his announcement.

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For another, O’Toole proposes carbon tariffs on goods from “bad actors” like carbon-hog China, which have been given a free ride when it comes to emissions. “It’s essential,” Jaccard said of such tariffs. “Individual countries can’t act by themselves. We can’t have Indonesia, Pakistan, Kenya growing their economies in the way the Chinese did.”

O’Toole also promises to invest billions into new hydrogen fuel, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage, which should also meet with approval in Conservative circles.

Of course, he’s still getting blasted for his about-face on a consumer tax. But the hard truth for Conservatives is that Canadian voters want action on climate change.

Thankfully, O’Toole’s plan isn’t based on wild-eyed doom and gloom. It isn’t intended to reset our entire economy. His proposals are aligned with many sensible and smart carbon policies brought in by conservative governments in Alberta and British Columbia. Overall, his approach is so reasonable and effective that it should make the Trudeau Liberals squirm. If that fails to please O’Toole’s base, perhaps nothing will.

dstaples@postmedia.com

twitter.com/davidstaplesYEG

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