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Canada’s Supreme Court affirms federal government’s constitutional right to enact carbon pricing legislation

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, March 29, 2021

On March 25, the Supreme Court of Canada released a majority decision stating that the federal government of Canada was within its constitutional rights when it enacted the 2018 Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act — which required the provinces to meet minimum national standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The decision enables the federal government to move on to more ambitious climate action plans, since it ends a two-year battle with the provinces, and affirms the importance of the climate change issue. The majority decision states that national climate action “is critical to our response to an existential threat to human life in Canada and around the world.” Summaries and reaction to this hugely important decision include an Explainer in The Narwhal , and “Supreme Court rules federal carbon pricing law constitutional” (National Observer) . Mainstream media also covered the decision, including a brief article in the New York Times which relates it to U.S. policy climate.

The Canadian Labour Congress issued a press release “Canada’s unions applaud Supreme Court decision upholding federal carbon pricing” – pointing out that the carbon tax is only one piece of the puzzle in reducing GHG emissions. Unifor emphasized next steps, calling on the provincial premiers of Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta, and the federal Conservative leader, to “stop complaining” and devise their own climate action plans. Similar sentiments appeared in the reactions of other advocacy groups: for example, Council of Canadians; the Pembina InstituteClean Energy Canada, and the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) .

Political reactions

The reaction and explanation of the case from the federal government is here. The CBC provides a survey of political reaction here. Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta were the three provinces who lost their Supreme Court case: in a press release, Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenney pledged that his government will continue to “fight on”, and will now begin to consult with Albertans on how to respond to the court’s decision – as reported in the National Observer, “Alberta has no carbon tax Plan B, was hoping to win in court: Kenney” (March 26) . Kenney further stated, “We will continue to press our case challenging Bill C-69, the federal ‘No More Pipelines Law,’ which is currently before the Alberta Court of Appeal.” [Note Bill C-69 is actually titled An Act to enact the Impact Assessment Act and the Canadian Energy Regulator Act… and was enacted in June 2019]. Ontario’s “disappointment” is described in this article in the Toronto Star and Saskatchewan’s government reaction is described here by the CBC . A sum-up Opinion piece appears in The Tyee: “Sorry Cranky Conservatives! Carbon Pricing Wins the Day” (March 29).

Transition Time?: Energy Attitudes in Southern Saskatchewan

By Andrea Olive, Emily Eaton, Randy Besco, Nathan Olmstead, and Catherine Moez - Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Fall 2020

If you woke up in southern Saskatchewan today, chances are it is windy, and the sun is shining. Regina and Saskatoon are among the sunniest cities in all of Canada, and southern Saskatchewan has some of the highest solar photovoltaic potential in North America (Government of Canada nd). It also has some of the highest wind energy potential on the continent (Saskwind nd). Yet there is little solar or wind energy production occurring in the province — indeed, at present, wind contributes 5% and solar contributes less than 3% of energy consumed. Instead, Saskatchewan is known as an oil and gas economy with a dependence on coal for electricity and a deep opposition to carbon pricing. While high oil prices and a shale oil revolution initially led to a “Saskaboom,” the tides have quickly turned. With the collapse in oil prices in 2014 and the COVID-19 crisis of 2019-2020, boom has turned to bust, and oil and gas communities are hurting.

The problems with a steady reliance on fossil fuels are twofold: economic and environmental. For starters, an oil and gas economy is a volatile economy. As COVID disruptions revealed, any shock to the system can devastate the industry. When demand fell — as airlines cancelled flights and people lived under lock-down — oil prices tumbled to $3.50 USD a barrel in April. Pumps across Saskatchewan went idle. Similar slumps were felt during the 2008 global recession and the 2014 global drop in oil prices. When government revenues are closely tied to oil and gas production the fear of the next bust is always — and rightfully — around the corner.

The environmental externalities of fossil fuels are also ever present. Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal are the leading cause of climate change, including unpredictable weather patterns, such as extreme heat, droughts, and flooding. In 2017, Saskatchewan’s emissions were 75% higher than they were in 1990. Today, the province’s emissions per capita are the highest in Canada and among the highest in the world (UCS 2018).

Read the text (PDF).

Decommissioning California Refineries: Climate and Health Paths in an Oil State

By Greg Karras - Communities for a Better Environment, July 2020

Machines that burn oil are going away. We will burn much less oil, either to prevent the increasing accumulation of pollution impacts that could cause the collapse of human societies as we know them, or as a footnote to the collapse of our societies and economies on which the petroleum fuel chain now feeds. Which path we take matters.

Sustainable energy technologies that are proven, available now, and obviously more economic than societal collapse could replace oil and other fossil fuels. But critical oil infrastructure, permitted mainly in working class communities and communities of color, is still growing. Environmental, economic, and racial injustice weaken societal capacity to break free of this toxic path. Societal capacity to organize—political feasibility—has emerged as the primary barrier to solving our existential pollution crisis.

California has this problem. It hosts the largest oil refining center in western North America. It has the worst air pollution in the nation, and yet it has allowed its oil sector’s critical infrastructure to grow in low-income communities of color, where this pollution is disparately severe compared with the state average. It uses pollution trading—the exchange of money for permits to pollute—leaving communities largely on our own to fight refinery and oil terminal expansion projects.

Communities rose up to stop tar sands projects in many inspiring efforts that for a decade have held to a trickle the flood of cheaper, dirtier oil that refiners sought. But some projects slipped through. The petroleum fuel chain emits more carbon from extracting, refining, and burning fuels made from the oil refined in California than all other activities in the state combined, and as other emissions have begun to decline, its emissions have not.

In fact its emissions increased from 2013–2017 as refiners here increased production for exports that sold for more money than the entire oil sector spent on permits to emit under the state’s carbon trading scheme. They could do that because no refiner faced any limit on carbon emissions from its plant. They still can because politicians caved in to their demand to make carbon trading the only curb on those emissions. Since 2017, state law has prohibited state air officials from setting a carbon-cutting limit on any oil refining plant under this carbon trading scheme.

Governor Brown argued this law was the best “compromise” that was politically feasible. Yet state climate policy has ignored the need, first voiced by the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union decades ago, for a mandate that assures workers a just transition. Equally important to political feasibility, communities must predict how fast to transition their job and tax bases from oil to sustainable alternatives. But by letting any polluter delay emission cuts at any time, pollution trading makes it harder to make this very prediction.

Read the report (PDF).

The Steps to Ecosocialism

By Ian Angus and John Bellamy Foster - Jacobin, April 26, 2017

We were pleased to learn that Daniel Tanuro was writing an article on carbon pricing schemes. His book Green Capitalism: Why it Can’t Work makes important contributions to ecosocialist thought, and he has an impressive record of personal involvement in many radical environmental campaigns in Europe. We looked forward to the clear explanation and strong critique of market-based approaches to climate change that we know he could write.

Unfortunately, “The Right’s Green Awakening” does not live up to the generally high standard set by his book. Instead of addressing the carbon-pricing plans that have surfaced in capitalist politics, Tanuro focuses his critique on proposals developed by leading climate scientist James Hansen and on the critical support that we gave his proposal in Monthly Review and Climate & Capitalism.

Tanuro equates our position — and Hansen’s rather different one — with a proposal advanced by some right-wing American politicians, arguing that we support “a populist variant . . . [of] neoliberal doctrine.” Naturally, we disagree.

We are not saying that our views are above criticism. Open debate is an essential part of building a global ecosocialist movement, and we welcome thoughtful responses to anything we have written. However, since Tanuro’s article seriously misrepresents both Hansen’s plan and our approach to it, we need to correct his misunderstandings before a proper discussion can begin.

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