This is the second in a series of articles dealing with carbon tax and trading. The first article dealt with the history surrounding the UN treaty on climate change and the various attempts to implement the treaty which eventually culminated in the Paris Agreement. The pan-Canadian framework became Canada’s answer to reduce its overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Carbon pricing forms the central component behind any market attempt to reduce GHG emissions other than using strict command and control regulations. Pricing sends a signal to the marketplace that products or operations relying on extensive carbon use can be less economically efficient than other products or operations that use less carbon.
The ability to emit any form of pollution into the environment without restrictions allows polluting entities to externalize those costs. This means that these entities do not have to incur the cost of cleanup while some other neighbour next door, or city or country incurs the eventual cost of that pollution. Sending a price signal essentially adds the cost of the pollution right into the cost of the product or operation itself. Anyone using that product or operation can now compare the cost with another product or operation that does not have such a carbon extensive expense attached to it. The market eventually switches to the low-carbon alternative.
This problem of externalizing costs can be seen in other areas. The globalization of the economy demonstrates this. Lower tariffs allow products that are produced more cheaply elsewhere into the country. The entire economy essentially benefits except for those that used to make the same item but at a higher cost. One group incurs the benefits while a different group incurs the cost such as job loss.
A more concrete example would the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). This 44-member intergovernmental organization comprises low-lying coastal and small island countries formed to address global warming. The existence of many of these states are at risk owing to global warming and rising sea level. The group continues to threaten litigation with climate change related losses at potentially over $570 trillion.
The federal government places carbon pricing as the primary pillar to its pan-Canadian framework. The question then becomes can it legally achieve this goal.
The framework uses two basic mechanisms for this pricing under Bill C-74 which includes the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act (GHG Act) and recently passed by the Senate. The first mechanism uses carbon taxation. The Act actually uses the term “charge” instead of tax, but tax seems to capture the concept fairly well also. The charge begins at $20 per CO2 equivalent for 2019 and increases at $10 per year until it reaches $50 in the year 2022.
The federal government’s jurisdiction over the environment can conflict with the provinces’ jurisdiction quite easily. The federal government’s jurisdiction over tax pursuant to s. 91(3) of the Constitution Act however appears quite clear. This section allows the federal government to raise money by any mode or system of taxation. However, the intent behind the GHG Act would be for it to be revenue neutral. The revenues raised would be returned to the provinces to facilitate climate adaptation and innovation in low carbon technology. The GHG Act does appear clear in that it raises revenue. The Constitution Act does not place a condition on raising money through taxes depending upon how the revenues can be spent.
The federal government can pass legislation in order to implement a treaty, but this does not override the provinces’ jurisdiction. The government also has authority under peace, order and good government. Carbon being emitted in one jurisdiction can have negative effects in another jurisdiction, but this would not seem to justify dealing with carbon on a national basis under this type of power.
A number of provinces intend to challenge the federal jurisdiction to place a charge on carbon emissions. Scholars have opined on this situation and came to the conclusion that the feds would likely succeed in any court challenge. Although this delays the inevitable, court challenges also allow a bad situation to continue. In addition, jurisdictions not modifying their economy to align themselves with a lower carbon future, shall soon become less competitive and be left behind by the global economy.
In the next article, we shall be examining how the second mechanism of carbon pricing, carbon trading, integrates with the tax proposal. Read the previous article here.
Gary Goodwin is the chief legal officer for a national conservation organization. He has been working in the environmental field for over 30 years.
Lawyers Daily July 6, 2018