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ANDREW COYNE: Conservative climate change ‘plan’ is really more of a prop

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer speaks at a campaign rally  in London, Ont. on Sept. 24, 2019.
Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer speaks at a campaign rally in London, Ont. on Sept. 24, 2019.

The second clue that the Conservative climate change plan is a work, essentially, of mischief — an intentionally pointless bit of misdirection — is to be found on the inside title page. “Please consider the environment,” it reads, “before printing this document.”

How they all must have laughed. Boilerplate though it may be in other workplaces, the idea of Conservative HQ being one of those places is something of a joke in itself. But the meta-delights of pretending to be so — of, in effect, parodying their environmentalist critics, in broad daylight — must have been irresistible.

And the first clue? It’s right there in the title: A Real Plan to Protect Our Environment. A plan it may be — the word plan appears in it, after all, 95 times! — but the strongest impression it leaves is of how unreal it is: again, intentionally so.

It isn’t that the “real plan” that bills itself as Canada’s “best chance to meet its Paris targets” for reducing greenhouse gas emissions contains no estimates of how much its measures would, in fact, reduce our emissions. Nor is it that, while the plan’s signature proposal would require heavy industry to meet certain “emissions standards” or invest “a set amount” in green technology for every tonne they exceed their standard, it nowhere spells out what either the standards or the amounts are.

Perhaps, to be fair, the details are to come. It’s the whole philosophy — “technology, not taxes” — that’s wrong. Whether or not a government-mandated investment is really all that different from a tax, it suffers from at least two problems that a carbon tax does not.

One, how do we know that the business would not have made the investment anyway? And two, how do we know that the investment is genuinely of a kind that would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions? With a carbon tax, the answer is simple: firms will make whatever investments prove helpful to them in reducing their emissions, up to the point where the cost of the investment is just equal to the cost of the tax.

But with the Tory plan, you need someone, let’s call it the government, to regulate, inspect and verify the whole thing. Thus the government will be involved in “determining the eligibility of green technology investments,” issuing “Green Investment Certificates,” though not before “a technical assessment” to determine “whether a specific project, investment, fund, or other instrument supports the development or adoption of emissions-reducing technology.” And thus “we will establish an auditing function” to ensure “that investments are incremental.”

Of course, much the same problem afflicts the Tories’ other big initiative, or rather reinitiative (it’s a revival of a policy brought in by the Harper government): the Green Homes Tax Credit, which will pay homeowners 15 cents for every dollar they invest in “green improvements to their home” — better insulation, high-efficiency furnaces and so forth — up to $20,000.

Again, how do you know people wouldn’t have made the same investments anyway, just to save money on their energy bills? You don’t, meaning much of the subsidy is wasted. But also: which sorts of “improvements” would qualify? Again, the government would have to define and enforce these, meaning more bureaucracy and red tape.

More critically, the list could only extend to those things it occurred to the government to put on it. Contrast with a carbon tax, which contains a built-in incentive for people to find ways to save on their own, in whatever myriad ways might occur to them. Yes, without a cookie from the government. Conservatives used to like that sort of thing.

As for the third leg of the Tory plan, claiming credit for reductions in emissions achieved in other countries by the substitution of “clean” Canadian technology for whatever “dirty” equivalent they are currently using — Canadian natural gas, say, in place of coal — there’s nothing wrong with it in principle. And, indeed, the Paris agreement contains a provision making allowance for such international transfers of credit, under certain conditions.

But two countries can’t both claim credit for the same reductions. And under the Paris agreement the default rule is that reductions are credited to the country where they occur. Maybe we can persuade those countries to give us the credit instead. But we’ll have to make it worth their while.

There’s a lot of other stuff in there that has nothing to do with climate change, really. A “Green Patent Credit,” slashing taxes on income generated from green inventions, or “Green Technology Fund”? These will do nothing to reduce Canada’s emissions. They’re just another form of industrial policy — governments betting their hunches with other people’s money. Conservatives used to dislike that sort of thing.

But of course the point of the plan wasn’t so much to say what the Tories would do, as what they wouldn’t. And what they won’t do, if you were wondering, is a carbon tax.

The document repeats all of the party’s talking points on the tax: that it “makes life harder and less affordable for Canadians” (no mention of the offsetting rebates, which the Parliamentary Budget Office has found would more than compensate most households for the cost of the tax), that “families just trying to pay their bills do not always have the flexibility to make different choices” (they still come out ahead, netting the tax against the rebate: they just don’t get to keep as much as they might have otherwise), and so on.

The “Real Plan” is not intended to be a serious policy proposal. It is, essentially, a prop, a “plan” the Conservative leader can wave about during the election campaign when the Liberals demand to know “what’s your alternative.”

It is true that the Liberal plan, as currently stated, will not meet our Paris commitments, either, and that it will fall short largely because they are unwilling, for political reasons, to rely on carbon pricing for more than a fraction of the overall reductions required. But at least we know what the Liberal plan is, how far it will get us, and how much it will cost. You really can’t say the same for the Conservative plan.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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