On March 25th, the Supreme Court of Canada declared the federal carbon pricing scheme to be constitutional: the federal government has the legal right to impose it on provinces, such as Saskatchewan, which have not developed their own scheme.  While carbon pricing is just one of the measures that we need to address the climate crisis, it is an important one.  By providing a general price signal, it can reach places that it would be difficult, expensive or intrusive to reach by other means.

Chief Justice Richard Wagner’s ruling actually went further in its reasons:

“As a global problem, climate change can realistically be addressed only through international efforts.  Any province’s failure to act threatens Canada’s ability to push for international action to reduce GHG emissions.  Therefore, a provincial failure to act directly threatens Canada as a whole….”  (para 190)

Justice Wagner’s argument could be applied to other measures besides carbon pricing.  The context is that Saskatchewan has the highest per capita greenhouse gas emissions of any province, and that Saskatchewan and Alberta together, with 15% of the population, are responsible for 48% of national emissions.

The response to the Supreme Court decision from Premier Scott Moe was rapid – and unhelpful:

  • He said he would introduce provincial GHG emissions regulations for SaskPower and SaskEnergy – he could have done that as part of a provincial carbon pricing plan for the province at the outset instead of dragging us through pointless and expensive litigation.
  • He indicated he would introduce a provincial carbon pricing system for fuel “similar to New Brunswick’s”.  This, again, is something that the federal government would probably have accepted at the outset – albeit foolishly so.  In the New Brunswick legislation which the federal government accepted as (supposedly) equivalent to its own programme, 6.6 cents was added to the cost of a litre of gasoline through ($30/tonne) carbon pricing, and then 4.6 cents taken away in an excise tax rebate.  Similarly, the New Brunswick legislation hands back all the carbon pricing revenues from heating buildings to the corporation selling the gas.  This is essentially an act of sabotage – the price signal on which carbon pricing depends is rendered negligible, and the refunds to citizens minimal.  Fortunately, federal Environment and Climate Change minister Jonathan Wilkinson has indicated that he possibly wouldn’t let Saskatchewan get away with similar sleight of hand – perhaps strengthened in this by Chief Justice Wagner’s comments (and perhaps also aware that the world is watching more closely as we move towards this November’s COP26 UN climate conference in Glasgow).
  • He is planning a greenhouse gas offset programme, buying credits from farms and businesses.  Leading economists have pointed out that this is likely to actually increase emissions.  Offsets are very much an absolute last resort – something that you should only do when the technology is not yet there to enable you to cut your own emissions.  Otherwise, it’s just a way of evading your responsibility of transitioning your emissions down to zero.  Management of offset programmes is inherently problematic, due to the risk of (amongst other things) double-counting, lack of additionality (the financial recipient would have taken the action anyway), lack of permanence, and the impossibility of accurate measurement.  The last two concerns are especially the case when the financial beneficiaries are in farming or forestry.
  • He referred to plans for small modular nuclear reactors (SMNRs) – a technology which would be too late (won’t be ready until at least 2030) and too expensive (a conservative estimate puts it at about 10 times the unit cost of wind or solar power) – quite apart from the inherent risks.  Efficiency, wind and solar can be implemented rapidly now, as several European jurisdictions have shown.  We would do much better to emulate Scotland’s experience: they built up their renewables-based generation from 22% of their electricity requirement in 2008 to over 97% in 2020. [See our letter to MLAs on SMNRs here.]
  • He would request federal funds from the Low Carbon Economy Fund.  Again, Saskatchewan would have been eligible to receive those funds if it had signed on to the federal-provincial Pan-Canadian Framework at the outset (and accepted the carbon pricing regime arising from it).

This is all part of a pattern.  This is the government which closed down the province’s only intercity public transit service, abandoned the net metering programme for small solar photovoltaics, and touted its $1.5 billion carbon capture and storage for enhanced oil extraction project as central to its climate policy.  Finance minister Donna Harpauer further confirmed the provincial government’s commitment to climate irresponsibility in the provincial budget of April 6th.  Her announcements go beyond negligence: not only is there no new funding for serious climate action, but she has imposed a new $150/year tax on electric vehicles, reduced royalty payments by the oil and gas industry, confirmed a 10% discount on SaskPower bills (which means that we all end up paying more in other ways, and the big consumers benefit most), and re-announced the plans to introduce SMNRs.

All in all, a kick in the teeth for climate responsibility, for science-based policy and for all the many people and ecosystems facing disaster, displacement, degradation and death from the climate crisis.

We are not getting much more of a sense of responsibility, however, from the official opposition.  In his response to the Supreme Court ruling, NDP leader Ryan Meili stated that:

“Today’s ruling means that Trudeau’s economy-wide carbon tax will continue to take more from the people of Saskatchewan than they get back.”

This is untrue.  All money taken from Saskatchewan through federal carbon pricing is returned to Saskatchewan residents in rebates (apart from a small fraction that goes to Saskatchewan institutions and some small businesses).  Because (with slight variations) rebate payments are the same for all irrespective of income or emissions profile, most people get back more in their rebate than they lost through the additional cost of carbon-based fuels. 

Meili went on to say:

“The federal government must press pause on its plans to dramatically increase the carbon tax, especially while so many families across the country – not just in Saskatchewan – are struggling coming through the pandemic.  Now is not the time to increase costs on working families.”

Again, an increase in the carbon pricing rate means an increase in the rebates – so the vast majority of working families will gain financially from the plan to progressively increase carbon pricing to $170/tonne.  And Mr Meili makes no alternative proposal as to how the (already inadequate) federal emissions reduction target can be achieved.

When an opposition politician – and one who was formerly able to make a justifiable claim to advocate evidence-based policy – joins with government in its disinformation campaign on such a vital and urgent subject, it’s a sign that Saskatchewan is truly in trouble.  It is going to take a lot of work by a lot of people to restore sanity, integrity and the protection of the climate-vulnerable.  Please join us in that work.

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