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Fighting climate change: Beyond Canada’s carbon tax

Fidler: We need a different kind of government based on the support of the victims of climate change, not its perpetrators

Canadian PoliticsEnvironment

Photo by Kris Krüg/Flickr

Free Transit Ottawa (FTO) organized a public meeting on March 18 on the theme “Fighting Climate Change: Beyond the Carbon Tax.” The event was co-sponsored by a range of local climate justice movements including, Ecology Ottawa, Horizon Ottawa, Justice for Workers, Fridays for Future and the City for All Women Initiative (CAWI). Speakers on the introductory panel were Emma Bider of Climate Justice Ottawa, Angella MacEwen of CUPE and the Green Economy Network, and myself representing Free Transit Ottawa. The following text is based on my remarks.

Climate change is the most visible, most threatening expression of a larger, planetary ecological crisis, the result of a fossil-fueled economic system with its pursuit of endless growth which ensures that the exploitation of natural resources (both renewable and non-renewable) exceeds the carrying capacity of nature.

Our approach must be commensurate with the structural challenge that crisis poses to the way society is organized if we are to halt and reverse the ecological catastrophe toward which we are now hurtling—and which is fueled by our dependency on fossil fuels.

Globally, we are still fighting even to win recognition of the need to end fossil fuel dependency. The major achievement of the recent COP28 conference—the 28th annual meeting of the UN conference parties since the Kyoto conference in the mid-1990s—was, for the first time, a consensus agreement that we must “transition away” from fossil fuels if we are to attain the international goal of “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2050.

Is this happening? The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in a recent study, reports that half of the oil consumed by humans has been burned in the past 27 years; half of the gas in the past 21 years; and half of the coal in the past 37 years. As a result, half of the world’s 1.77 trillion tonnes of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions have been released in the past 30 years. Fourteen percent have been emitted since the landmark Paris Agreement of 2015.

To date, renewable energies like wind, solar or thermal, have not made much of a dent in energy consumption or per capita fossil fuel use. Renewables have “only served to increase overall energy consumption.” In 2022 fossil fuels still accounted for 82.9 percent of total world energy consumption.

But emissions from carbon production and use are destroying the global climate. So we have to find and develop renewable and substitute sources of energy. And, equally if not more important, find ways to eliminate much inefficient and socially undesirable consumption of energy. And adapt our societies to be less reliant on the market forces that drive production and consumption under our fossil-fueled capitalist system, with their attendant growing social inequality and deterioration of public services.

Where is Canada in all this?

Canada is the world’s fourth-largest oil producer. More than half of its production is exported. Canada gets 90.8 percent of its primary energy production from fossil fuels (54 percent from oil, 31 percent from natural gas, six percent from coal). The remainder comes from hydro, nuclear and renewables sources.

The federal government’s Emissions Reduction Plan, the latest iteration of its Pan-Canadian Framework on Green Growth and Climate Change, promises to reduce emissions by 40-45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030—and to net-zero by 2050.

The plan includes a forthcoming cap on oil and gas emissions; a green buildings strategy; and the creation of clean renewable electricity grids. But it also features promotion of electric vehicles (mainly cars) and extensive funding of new (and so far undiscovered or unproven) technology such as carbon capture and storage or direct air capture, allegedly to “offset” continued extraction of oil and gas.

And then there are the new pipelines and liquified natural gas (LNG) plants, built to export Canada’s increasing fossil-fuel extraction for many years to come (consumption of exported gas is not included in Canada’s emissions statistics). The government-owned Trans Mountain pipeline project has cost some $35 billion to date. The LNG plant in Prince Rupert, fed by the controversial Northern Gateway gas pipeline, has cost $40 billion to build. Four more LNG plants are in the works.

Much of the federal plan is left to the provinces and private business to implement, with dubious results. In Ontario, Doug Ford ended a slew of renewable energy projects and is increasing the province’s reliance on natural gas. Alberta’s Danielle Smith has sharply curtailed renewable energy projects. British Columbia’s NDP government is pursuing LNG expansion and overseeing a dramatic ramp-up in natural gas fracking. In Newfoundland and Labrador, oil and gas now account for about 25 percent of the province’s gross domestic product, and the province aims to double oil production.

Still central to the federal plan is the carbon tax or its counterpart in BC and Québec, cap-and-trade. “Putting a price on pollution,” says the plan, “is widely recognized as the most efficient means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Producers and consumers alike are subject to periodic graduated carbon price payments in the hope that, through market forces, increased costs will promote more climate-friendly expenditures.

However, we need to be clear. Regulating emissions is an alternative to planning and quantifying the needed cutbacks in fossil fuel extraction and development. As many critics have noted, carbon pricing doesn’t even regulate emissions, it just puts a price on them based on an arbitrary calculation, the “social cost of carbon,” that tends to ignore the “externalities”—the cumulative emissions, feedback loops, and (in the case of carbon trading credits) the disproportionate impacts of climate change on countries in the Global South. For business, carbon pricing is just a cost of doing business. And it will always be limited to ensure that Canadian businesses are not disadvantaged by competitors’ prices and to avoid economic disruption that would motivate greater market intervention.

For consumers, however, carbon pricing tends to download moral and financial responsibility on households that burn fossil fuels for heating or transportation. The feds have tried to offset public resentment over the tax through rebates for 80 percent of consumers. And, more recently, public opposition has forced them to exempt Maritimers from the tax on home heating oil, and to remove the tax from farm fuels. Yet the government still insists that carbon pricing will reduce Canada’s carbon emissions by up to one-third by 2030.

Clearly, the overall objective of Canada’s official climate plan is to retain fossil fuels as Canada’s primary energy source for as long as possible, using market-based “offsets” and carbon trading to achieve “net-zero.” Not surprisingly, many Canadians are resentful at moves to make them help pay for these anti-ecological and antisocial policies and programs.

Cartoon by Khalil Bendib

What’s the alternative?

In his recent book A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, Seth Klein argues convincingly that we need a radically different approach. He contrasts Canada’s listless response to today’s climate crisis with the massive mobilization the country experienced during the Second World War. That included adoption of an emergency mindset, mandatory measures, a reconfiguration of industrial production (e.g. jeeps and tanks, not cars) and above all no reliance on market forces; real planning, nationalizations (about 50 Crown corporations), and spending what it took to win.

A comparable mobilization is needed now, Klein urges. It would start with a national needs inventory as the basis for coordinating mass production of the equipment needed to realize our new GHG reduction targets. New factories would be built, as needed, to produce solar panels, wind turbines, electric heat pumps and electric busses at a mass scale (the technology already exists). A clear wind-down pathway would be adopted for all fossil fuel extraction in Canada, guided by a robust just transition plan for existing fossil fuel workers and communities that currently rely on these industries.

Along with a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure, we need to develop a massive green public infrastructure plan, involving all levels of government. Billions of dollars would be invested in renewable energy, building retrofits, high-speed rail and expansion and electrification of cross-country railways, mass public transit, along with electric vehicle charging stations and methane capture from farms and landfills.

And because even under the best-case scenario a certain amount of global warming is already locked-in, Klein reminds us, we also now need to undertake major investments in climate adaptation and resilience infrastructure, with a focus on ensuring that vulnerable communities are better protected from climate disasters and related events (forest fires, extreme heat events, flooding, etc.). We also need to significantly invest in forest management that will lessen wildfire risks to rural and Indigenous communities, while providing thousands of sustainable jobs in resource-based communities. We need a large-scale program to repair and enhance Canada’s natural climate sequestration systems—helping nature suck carbon from the atmosphere. That includes an extensive reforestation program, and of course the preservation of existing old-growth forests.

Klein then adds an important point. As advocates of a Green New Deal have emphasized, he says, “we need more than just direct climate infrastructure investments—we also need large-scale investments in social infrastructure and the caring economy.”

“That means investments from all levels of government in zero-carbon public and non-profit housing—a bold commitment to build hundreds of thousands of new units of non-market housing. And it means federal and provincial funding for universal, public, accessible, quality child care and home care for seniors and people with disabilities. These are public services that are already virtually carbon-free and would represent a major enhancement to household affordability.”

Finally, we need to set in law and regulation clear dates by which certain things must happen. “Clear targets … embedded in law and well publicized, will send a much stronger signal to the market than any form of carbon pricing. They communicate to businesses and consumers that they must reorient their plans accordingly. If effectively enforced, these targets will push manufactures, builders, installers and extraction companies to make investment plans that align with these dates.”

That said, I would note a few things Klein overlooks. His national perspective must be supplemented by an international dimension. This means solidarity with climate-justice struggles in the Global South—the peoples who are primary victims of global warming—in opposition to unequal trade relations, super-exploitation of their labour, and the pillage of their natural resources by transnational capital, and for relief from illegitimate debts. It means collaboration with countries like China in developing global trade in alternative energy resources and technologies.

Indigenous people are prime targets of attempts to coerce or coopt them into “partnering” with corporations and governments in the capitalist exploitation of their lands and resources. Solidarity with their struggles for self-determination and autonomy is essential.

The transition is itself a source of supplementary emissions that must be offset if the carbon budget is not to explode. Yet we need to reduce global energy consumption, that is, reduce productive and/or transport activities. This means challenging the capitalist growth imperative.

Does this mean degrowth? Some production or services should not degrow but be suppressed, ASAP: coal facilities and mines, oil extraction, weapons production, the advertising industry, plastics, pesticides, etc. But others should grow—such as renewable energies, organic agriculture, and essential services (education, health and culture).

Overall, this points to the “system change” that our movements have counterposed to climate change. Strategy, programs oriented to satisfying social, community needs, not subordinate to profit motive. And that, if I may say so, is a huge difference from the analogy Klein makes with the Second World War mobilization. Then, ruling elites united in leading the national war effort. That unity was in their class interest.

Today, we have no such cross-class unanimity. Instead, we face what some critics call a “regime of obstruction” based on a matrix of corporate and financial control of our political and economic processes, the news and other cultural media—its power centres a combination of Calgary-based petroleum interests and Toronto-based finance and banking. It’s a structural problem. To resolve it, we need to build alliances, coalitions of workers, farmers, Indigenous communities, racialized minorities, students, youth and poor against the entrenched fossil oligarchy. And link decarbonization with opposition to capitalist austerity.

A key challenge: Restructuring transportation

If we break down Canada’s GHG emissions by sector, more than half are in fossil fuel resource extraction (25 percent) and transportation (28 percent). How might the alternative strategy outlined here work in transportation, a service that along with housing and health care is integrally important to the day-to-day experiences of the people in our local communities?

Topping Klein’s list of measures to get our transportation sector to carbon-zero is (and I quote) “expanding public transit, including a plan to make public transit not only more accessible and convenient, but also dramatically more affordable (minimally, that means free public transit for lower-income people, but could well involve making transit a ‘free’ publicly paid service, just like health care).”

That is what we in Free Transit Ottawa propose: making public transit accessible to all, at no user charge, just like public schools, most health care, fire services, bike paths and sidewalks. A radically improved public transit system, which would be a major step toward fighting poverty and social exclusion, would also be the biggest single measure we could take to combat climate change.

What about trucks and cars? Rail expansion could reduce much highway trucking, and urban trucking can be electrified. As for cars, the private vehicles that have shaped the design and culture of our cities for more than a century—contributing to urban sprawl, loss of greenspace, wetlands and agricultural land, higher costs and waste of time for daily commuters, etc.—it is necessary not only to put bans on the manufacture, sale and advertising of new fossil fuel-burning cars, but to replace them through expansion of electrified urban public transportation and inter-city rail.

That was the point made by the workers at GM’s auto plant in Oshawa, which the company closed in late 2019 after more than 100 years of operations. Green Jobs Oshawa, the campaign led by Unifor Local 222’s political action committee, called on the federal government to take over the plant as a publicly owned enterprise and convert it to electric vehicle manufacturing, with a focus on the production of vehicles for government truck fleets such as those of Canada Post—following through on the postal workers’ union proposal for making the post office a hub for electrification and local community banking and home services.

Far from replacing cars, however, Ottawa and some provinces are simply planning to electrify them. They have already arranged to invest some $50 billion on the construction of three giant factories—two in Ontario, one in Québec—to manufacture batteries for EVs. Critics question the need for such giant subsidies to the foreign companies in question when they might well invest in battery production without the subsidies. We might ask, as well: what if such sums had been spent on expanding and electrifying urban public transit? And what about the environmental cost of extracting the minerals needed to produce these batteries? Can we really hope to reduce carbon emissions through massive development of mining, among the most energy-consuming and polluting industries?

Finally, we must bear in mind that the campaign for free and improved public transit will face serious opposition from property developers who own large tracts of land on the edges of cities, the oil and auto industries, other business sectors that favour low taxes and limited government, and the politicians who represent them.

To achieve free and accessible public transit, we will have to build a movement powerful enough to overcome this opposition. That movement will be centred on those who are transit dependent as well as environmental activists, but must also include a wide range of working and professional people, including those in Ottawa who currently work for the public transit utility, OC Transpo. To build it, we will need to engage in educational activities as well as struggles for immediate reforms that lower the cost of public transport and/or increase its accessibility—joining existing struggles and initiating new struggles.

Ultimately, we need a different kind of government with the political will to lead, coordinate and consolidate the transition, a government based on the support of the victims of climate change, not its perpetrators.

Richard Fidler is a member of Solidarity Ottawa and a member of Québec solidaire. He blogs at Life on the Left.


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