Promises and pitfalls of the carbon tax; will Liberals learn from Hydro One debacle?

In January, the Government of Ontario began to phase in a new cap-and-trade system for carbon pricing, as part of a national strategy to tax carbon.

Carbon taxes aren’t new—British Columbia has had one since 2008—but we should pay close attention to how these programs are being implemented, and whether they are actually doing what they are supposed to do: reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reward efforts for sustainability.

Climate change is an emergency which requires a massive and immediate response. With that in mind, I’m  willing to overlook some minor flaws. A timely but imperfect response is better than a perfect plan that happens too late.

So far, however, the plans at both the provincial and federal levels have major flaws. And there is a risk that they may reward the biggest polluters while punishing the people who are trying to reverse climate change.

In Alberta, for example, tar sands corporations are currently exempted from the carbon tax, despite the fact that they are by far the biggest greenhouse gas polluters in the country. Ontario has likewise granted exemptions for some of the biggest polluters, such as the Imperial Oil refinery in Sarnia and Petro-Canada facilities in Mississauga.

This means that some of the companies that have profited most from destroying the climate are so far being let off the hook to save them “undue hardship”. Corporate needs are being prioritized over the needs of regular people.

There is an eerie similarity with the Ontario Liberal sell-off of Hydro One (a process which began with the Progressive Conservative government under Mike Harris). Many observers warned from the beginning that privatizing the provincial utility would lead to rising electricity prices. And that’s exactly what’s happened.

Electricity prices have risen dramatically, especially in rural Ontario. I’ve spoken to farmers who can no longer afford to run electricity to the barns in the winter, and who must carry out buckets of water for their livestock. This looks like a return to the 1930s for some farmers, while others are now paying thousands of dollars a month for electricity.  Meanwhile, a handful of corporations and banks appear to have profited handsomely from the sale of Hydro One.

The federal and provincial governments should learn from the Hydro One experience. Many small farmers are worried that the carbon tax will be the last straw, that it will put them out of business. But carbon pricing shouldn’t be gentle on corporate polluters and harsh on regular people—it needs to be the other way around.

And if there is going to be a carbon tax, a big chunk of that money needs to be redistributed to sustainable farmers. While some types of farming can emit greenhouse gases, it’s also completely possible to farm in a way that absorbs carbon from the atmosphere and sequesters it in the soil.

Most of our family farm, for example, is pasture and hayfield. Our livestock follow a carefully planned system of rotational grazing to maximize plant growth and return fertility (in the form of manure) to the fields.

The result is a kind of farming that builds soil health and that captures carbon in the form of root mass and organic matter in the soil. We also encourage the regrowth of trees in hedgerows and wild areas. We farm in a way that helps to combat global warming.

There are many ways that sustainable farming can help reverse global warming and to support biodiversity, pollinator health, and local ecologies.

Supporting local ecologies can also mean supporting local economies; some money from the carbon tax must go into directly supporting sustainable rural economies. It must be directed away from the corporations who are destroying the climate and instead sent to regular people who are experiencing and working against climate change.

Otherwise, the cap and trade experiment in Ontario could turn out just as badly as the sale of Hydro One.

Aric McBay is a farmer and author.