July 24, 2019

By Dr. Leigh Raymond

The Smart Prosperity Institute (SPI) and its Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC)-supported Greening Growth Partnership project have helped launch some important new work on the political economy of carbon pricing policies in Canada.

The Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change acknowledges the diversity of the Canadian federation and of existing provincial approaches to carbon pricing, though with the notable addition of a federal backstop for provinces that do not establish their own carbon pricing regime. Not surprisingly, the very different political economies of Canadian provinces have given rise to a diversity of approaches, with distinctive provincial carbon pricing schemes in BC, Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, PEI and the territories, and the imposition of the federal carbon tax and dividend in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, and, soon, Alberta.

Understanding why provinces have crafted distinct approaches to carbon pricing or rejected carbon pricing altogether requires a nuanced understanding of provincial economies, political culture, and partisan politics.  To begin to investigate these issues, SPI convened an introductory workshop of the leading political science academics and researchers of its international research network, along with public and civil society sector partners in Ottawa in September 2018.  Stemming from this workshop, an international group of expert researchers and practitioners set out to answer some vital questions about how carbon pricing is proceeding politically in different Canadian provinces. The initial results were presented at a featured panel at the June 2019 meeting of the Canadian Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, and have now been published in a series of short essays open to the public in Policy Options.

The results reflect the incredible diversity of perspectives on carbon pricing now percolating throughout Canada. From describing the relative effectiveness and popularity of the BC carbon tax and Quebec’s cap and trade program, to the startling failures of provincial carbon pricing schemes in Ontario and Alberta, the articles detail the complexities of the issue. Key themes include worries about consumer price impacts (see New Brunswick and Ontario, among other cases), long-standing tensions between more remote parts of the country and Ottawa, and possibly some missed political opportunities along the way.

One especially notable theme is that despite substantial political infighting, most provinces are on record as wanting to do something about climate change, and most Canadians believe that the federal government should be trusted more than or equally to the provinces in addressing  the problem. Thus, although the Pan-Canadian framework on climate change now looks like a moment of “fleeting harmony,” there is reason to think that carbon pricing can still have an important role in Canada’s efforts to control its greenhouse gas emissions and ensure a just transition to a decarbonized society. SPI researchers will continue to study these developments closely through the Greening Growth Partnership grant as these political discussions proceed in the months and years ahead.

Leigh S Raymond

Professor of Political Science, Purdue University