German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) noted that our perception of truth evolves over time: “To truth only a brief celebration of victory is allowed between the two long periods during which it is condemned as paradoxical, or disparaged as trivial.” This is often paraphrased as “all truth passes through three states: first, it is ridiculed; second, it is violently opposed; third, it is accepted as self-evident.” In the case of carbon pricing in Manitoba and nationally we appear to be approaching that final, obvious, and inevitable state when key stakeholders recognize the overwhelming burden of evidence and—as importantly—recognize the strategic benefit from being on the right side of history.
Recent decades have seen some important wins for evidence-based environmental policy. The Montreal protocol to ban chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) in 1989 was an important victory for the environment and an interesting precedent for scientific evidence informing meaningful political change. Faced with incontrovertible evidence that CFCs were destroying the ozone layer, all nations agreed to ban this chemical, in part because a commercially-viable substitute, hydroflourocarbons (HFCs), was readily available. The irony is that two and half decades later HFCs are now banned through an annex to the Montreal protocol recently concluded in Kigali, Rwanda. Although benign to the ozone layer, HFCs have been discovered to be a greenhouse gas thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2). The Kigali agreement banning their use should be welcomed as another victory for evidence as the basis for rational climate policy.
Celebrating the Montreal protocol and the Kigali agreement must be tempered by observing that the decisions to ban CFCs and HFCs were relatively clear-cut, insofar as each had commercially viable alternatives and therefore a clear transition path away from their use. Kigali’s success especially should not detract from the still-daunting task of phasing out all CO2 emissions. Measures to moderate and reduce CO2 emissions are inherently more complex than the specific case of HFCs, and have much farther reaching consequences.
One of those consequences is the burden our history of inaction places on our descendants. Dr. James Hanson, a senior climate science expert formerly of NASA and now Columbia University, earlier this month published a paper in the journal Earth System Dynamics entitled, “Young People’s Burden: Requirement of Negative CO2 Emissions”. Hanson, who has been much ridiculed as an alarmist over his career—and yet invariably proven correct—makes the case that even with a rapid phase-out of all CO2 emissions, future generations are saddled with the need to actively remove and sequester atmospheric CO2 through technological and ecological means in order to prevent global warming above the 2°C and preferably the 1.5°C thresholds. Hanson is the most prominent among a growing group of researchers now voicing this new climate reality: whatever action we take now can only be a beginning, but an indisputably necessary one.
even with a rapid phase-out of all CO2 emissions, future generations are saddled with the need to actively remove and sequester atmospheric CO2 through technological and ecological means
In this context, a CO2 tax starting at $10/tonne is a halfhearted measure. It is low by a factor of 10 or more compared to the public cost of CO2 emissions, estimated by some recent integrated economic models at more than $200/tonne. Even once it hits $50/ton, the new tax will reflect only a small fraction of the real cost of carbon. The large gap between a politically tolerable level of taxation and the real public cost is certainly not an excuse for inaction, particularly when the opportunity for leadership and innovation also looms so large. Any public policy issue this big and complex requires a portfolio of instruments. The appropriate analogs are perhaps to be found in public health. Not only is tobacco heavily taxed and its use in public spaces forbidden, but we’re constantly reminded of the dangers of smoking through well-choreographed media campaigns. Although the Canadian debate has focused on the choice between a carbon tax or cap and trade, its arguable that we need both; a cap and trade system to ensure that large CO2 emitters actually reduce emissions and a carbon tax to build the revenue stream for investments in low-income tax relief, energy sector de-carbonization, carbon sequestration, and climate adaptation using flood- and drought-resilient green infrastructure. The other major benefit of a carbon tax is the society-wide signal that progressive climate policy is the way of the future.
Any public policy issue this big and complex requires a portfolio of instruments.
The confluence of public concern about climate change and the introduction of a federal carbon tax makes this moment a golden opportunity for Manitoba climate policy leadership. All the more so because the Manitoba Government’s flagship environmental policy, the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) program both dovetails perfectly with cutting-edge recommendations for global climate change mitigation, and offers an excellent opportunity for regulation to support and reinforce market incentives. At the landmark Paris climate conference last year, the host French government launched the “four parts per thousand” campaign: so named because their department of agriculture determined that by increasing the carbon content of the world’s agricultural soils by 0.4% (four parts per thousand) per year we can fully offset global greenhouse gas emissions, but also simultaneously improve drought resilience, agricultural productivity and world food security. Manitoba’s ALUS policy is intended to reduce flood risk and improve water quality through ecosystem management on agricultural land. And to their credit, the Manitoba government recognizes that ALUS will also be a key component of their climate adaptation strategy. The policy finesse lies in recognizing that ALUS should also be a major component of Manitoba’s greenhouse gas mitigation and carbon sequestration policy—and that a carbon tax can accelerate ALUS implementation.
A price on carbon is mostly a foregone conclusion at this point. Our attention should be focused on how to use the revenues to build a high value for money, no-regrets and prescient portfolio of carbon management investments consistent with Hanson’s sobering but logical conclusions. The opportunity for a world-leading made-in-Manitoba solution is before us.
Dr. Hank Venema
Prairie Climate Centre