Does a ‘credible climate plan’ require a carbon tax? The debate among Conservatives has already started

United Conservative Party supporters attend an anti-carbon tax rally in Calgary, Friday, Oct. 5, 2018. Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press.

Erin O’Toole’s ouster as Conservative Party leader has sparked the usual speculation about who will replace him, but there may be consequences beyond the leadership race.

Members may also be deciding whether a carbon tax belongs in the party’s platform again.

In a bid to win over voters in suburban ridings, mostly around Toronto, O’Toole included a relatively well-reviewed climate plan in the party’s election platform. The centrepiece of the plan was a modest carbon tax that generated some controversy from the western flank of the party and complaints from MPs that they were blindsided by it.

With O’Toole gone, the Toronto Star has reported that his climate plan has left with him. Does this spell the end for Conservative platforms that include a carbon tax?

A new advocacy group made up of long-time Conservative activists and members has steered clear of the carbon tax battle royale, but is pushing for a “credible, long-term Net Zero climate plan.”

“Some people think climate change is an existential crisis. I won’t debate that. But for me, the existential crisis is never having a Conservative government,” said Ken Boessenkool, the executive director of Conservatives for Clean Growth and contributor at The Hub.

The group’s website lists former Conservative minister of transport Lisa Raitt and former Alberta provincial treasurer Jim Dinning as co-chairs.

There is no mention of a carbon tax on consumers on the group’s website and Boessenkool said the group acknowledges there are multiple pathways to lower carbon emissions on the retail and consumer side.

And although Conservatives for Clean Growth doesn’t advocate for a retail carbon tax, the group’s website does suggest that “pricing industrial emissions” is one of the tools needed in an effective climate plan.

That’s a compromise many Canadians have seen before, with even fervent opponents of the carbon tax like Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney settling for a tax on heavy emitters.

Even while Kenney was battling the federal carbon tax in court, the Liberal government gave Alberta’s beefed-up tax on big industrial emitters the thumbs up. That levy is applied on a portion of emissions and is designed to spur innovation and encourage companies to shrink their carbon footprint.

O’Toole’s plan, which he preferred to call a “pricing mechanism” rather than a carbon tax, put a carbon levy on fuel at $20/tonne. The tax would eventually rise to $50/tonne.

Rather than the direct rebates offered in the current Liberal government’s plan, the Conservatives would have created “low carbon savings accounts” to give the revenues from the tax back to Canadians. O’Toole argued that this would stop the money flowing through the federal treasury, removing a temptation for future governments to cancel the rebates and use it for spending proposals.

The decision facing any candidate for Conservative leader is reflected by the two powerful advocacy groups on either side of the debate. Across the aisle from the Conservatives for Clean Growth is the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which asks candidates to pledge to “repeal the Trudeau carbon tax and reject any future national carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme.”

In 2020, O’Toole signed the pledge, but his climate plan ahead of last year’s election provoked a furious rebuke from the CTF, arguing that it was outrageous for the Conservative leader to break his promise to voters.

Increasingly, Conservative strategists have argued that it’s impossible to win some vital seats without a strong climate plan, pointing to a litany of recent opinion polls showing climate change is a big priority for those voters.

The question for the leadership hopefuls and party members is whether a “credible climate plan” necessarily includes a carbon tax, or whether Canada can reach its emissions targets with other policies.

Clean Prosperity, a climate policy advocacy group, argues that its post-election polling shows the carbon tax didn’t hurt Conservative chances. The poll, conducted by Leger and Clean Prosperity, found that only eight percent of potential Conservative voters were turned off by the carbon tax, while 21 percent of those voters said it made them more likely to vote Conservative.

Fifty-two percent of voters think the party should have a better plan for the climate, while five percent think the party should do less.

The poll also found that 58 percent of voters won’t cast a ballot for a party without a credible climate plan and that 67 percent of voters think a carbon tax is a priority in a credible plan for the environment.

In an interview with The Hub, Michael Bernstein, the executive director of Clean Prosperity, said that many voters see a carbon tax as a signal that a party is serious about climate change.

“If the Conservatives are going to win a general election, they need a credible climate plan. I think that’s abundantly clear, especially if they want to make progress in suburban areas, places like the 905 (suburbs) around Toronto,” said Bernstein.

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