When a tax is not a tax, Mr Harper

Canada’s government is wrong about carbon pricing – Felix von Geyer

Where politics is about power and interests and who controls the agenda and message in their own image, ideology and self-interest, issues are usually presented as essentially contested concepts that cannot be transcended – the art of the impossible is in fact to do precisely that, transcend them.

So, when a spokesman for Canada’s Conservative government, Fred Delorey accused Canada’s official opposition, the New Democrats, of wanting to impose a carbon price, the biggest thing on show was in fact Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s highly efficient spin machine.

How much longer a government can live on spin and courtesy of a divided majority opposition is a different question to answer. Crucially, the message given this week by the Conservative Party’s strategist and spokesman, Fred Delorey that any price on carbon is a carbon tax is, in short, designed to mislead. In the language of playwright Tennessee Williams, it’s downright mendacity.

Quite simply, the government is wrong. Selling 100,000 carbon credits on the market at, for example, $15/tonne is not a tax. It is an incentive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at less than $15/tonne.

Back in 2007, former US President Bill Clinton told New Orator that carbon taxes are great because no-one can avoid them: but cap and trade is better as it energizes entrepreneurs.

Some weeks later after he made a speech advocating a carbon tax over cap and trade, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told New Orator a carbon tax would also energize entrepreneurs.

The IMF’s 2008 WEO stated a carbon market is better than a carbon tax if you want a global price for carbon as having the best part of 200 governments agree a carbon price is nigh impossible.

Harper’s press secretary Andrew MacDougall did not respond to New Orator’s comments and questions concerning Delorey’s and the government’s myopic perspective on carbon pricing.

However, Canada’s resource-based sister economy Australia has recently introduced a carbon reduction scheme that at $15 per tonne expects to triple tax-free personal income tax thresholds to AUD$18,000 per year. In Canada, you could almost have free university education for that – and very topical it would be in Quebec as well as allowing more funds to be channeled into education, R&D, environmental science and technology.

According to the government’s own statistics for 2009, GDP was C$1,286 billion and its GHG emissions 690 million tonnes. That equivocates to just under 537 tonnes per C$million turnover. Therefore a C$50/tonne price on carbon would equal about 2.5% of GDP, less than the government’s own estimation of Canada’s 2008-2009 economic shrinkage caused by the global financial crisis.

At $50/tonne, what revenue neutrality and fiscal shifting could be achieved and also invested in a low-carbon future? In short, much.

The political reality however is that any government addressing the carbon tax or cap and trade will face a barrage of pressure against either. Iron pelletizers will cry foul play that they have incorporated more carbon footprint for the benefit of their downstream supply chain. Ditto aluminium producers will argue their carbon intensity has benefits for their downstream clients in terms of lighter transportation, although RioTintoAlcan will likely demand early action credits for emissions reductions resulting from implementing their innovative technologies since 1992.

RioTintoAlcan’s carbon footprint may be good in Quebec where Lac St Jean provides their hydro power, but in coal-fired South Africa, the reality is far different.

Data analyst company Trucost noted in 2009 that the average carbon footprint of mutual and hedge fund investment targets was 335 tonnes per million turnover; the worst offender China’s biggest coal-fired polluting power stations with over 1,500 tonnes per $million turnover. At $50/tonne, 335 tonnes equivocates to $16,750 per $million turnover, 1.675 per cent of corporate turnover – and that would be to address all emissions, not just reduce them between 25-40 per cent.

Each industry sector faces its own challenges; its own opportunities. Aviation emissions require better navigation and direct flights, otherwise technology improvements will gradually reduce energy consumption, a shift towards biofuels and alternative fuels is the only other alternative and large-scale take-up is difficult to project.

The mining and metals industry can achieve a lot, particularly in metals processing where waste heat recovery technology can make certain reductions; Alcan’s Pecheny technology has again set out to achieve a further 20 per cent emissions reduction over and above the original Pecheny 35 technology that reduced emissions from 6 tonnes of CO2/tonne of aluminium to 2.8 tonnes of CO2.

The cement industry has made its own advances.

It does not take much imagination for the Canadian, or any government yet to seriously address its greenhouse gas emissions, to devise sector-based targets that are deeply science-based, these days trending towards the higher end of the 25-40 per cent reduction target below 1990 levels, and then offer a 1% corporation tax reduction for companies who achieve them.

On face value, it would cost companies nothing if they choose to make no reductions at all.

Importantly, however, the signal to investors is that if they want to maximize their return on investment (ROI), they will need to demand their executive boards to achieve these targets. They will ask for no excuses or otherwise they will start to identify alternative investment targets that are capable of reaching these standards.

More curiously, companies who just miss qualifying for their corporation tax reduction might start to ask for a carbon market in order to buy the surplus emissions from companies over achieving their reductions targets but who qualify for no further reward. This could kick-start both an informal market price for carbon emissions, create a multiplier effect hopefully within the economy among companies addressing their emissions but furthermore sow the seeds for a grass-roots call for a carbon market.

Also, depending on where thresholds are set could include more than just the big emitters, instead embracing a wider selection of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) The subsequent need to verify, audit and report corporate energy and emissions profile would create its own service industry as well as reduce operating costs of companies identifying emissions reductions and energy improvements who  can seek to reduce emissions accordingly, whether through fuel-switching in the case of a power station or reducing sales representatives’ mileage.

So the answer Fred Delorey is that a any carbon price at all is far from a tax. Technology push and market pull or a vice versa scenario of market push and technology pull just requires good government policy, not irresponsible spin.


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