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Economists miss the point about the carbon tax revolt


7 minute read

From the Fraser Institute

By Ross McKitrick

An open letter is circulating online among my economist colleagues aiming to promote sound thinking on carbon taxes. It makes some valid points, and will probably get waved around in the House of Commons before long. But it’s conspicuously selective in its focus and unfortunately ignores the main problems with Canadian climate policy as a whole.

There’s a massive pile of boulders blocking the road to efficient policy. They have labels such as “Clean Fuel Regulations,” the oil and gas sector emissions cap, the electricity sector coal phaseout and “net-zero” requirements, strict energy efficiency rules for new and existing buildings, new performance mandates for natural gas-fired generation plants, the regulatory blockade on liquified natural gas export facilities, new motor vehicle fuel economy standards, caps on fertilizer use on farms, provincial ethanol production subsidies, electric vehicle mandates and subsidies, provincial renewable electricity mandates, grid-scale battery storage experiments, the “Green Infrastructure Fund,” carbon capture and underground storage mandates and subsidies, subsidies for electric buses and emergency vehicles in Canadian cities, new aviation and rail sector emission limits, and many more.

Not one of these occasioned a letter of protest from Canadian economists.

In front of that mountain of boulders there’s a twig labelled “overstated objections to carbon pricing” and at the sight of it hundreds of economists have rushed forward to carry it off the road. What a help.

To my well-meaning colleagues I respond that the pile of regulatory boulders long ago made the economic case for carbon pricing irrelevant. Layering a carbon tax on top of current and planned command-and-control regulations does not yield an efficient outcome, it just raises the overall cost to consumers. Which is why I can’t get excited about the carbon-pricing letter. That’s not where help with the heavy lifting is needed.

My colleagues object to exaggerated claims about the cost of carbon taxes. Fair enough. But far worse are exaggerated claims about the economic opportunities associated with the so-called “energy transition” and benefits of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Some of the latter are traceable to poor-quality academic research, such as the continued use of the RCP8.5 emissions scenario long after it has been shown in the academic literature to be grossly exaggerated, or use of impacts estimates from climate models known to have large persistent warming biases. But a lot of it is simply groundless rhetoric. Climate activists, politicians and journalists have spent years blaming Canadians’ fossil fuel use for every bad weather event that comes along and swinging “climate emergency” declarations and other polemical cudgels to shut down rational debate. Again, none of this occasioned a cautionary letter from economists.

There’s another big issue on which the letter was silent. Suppose we did clear all the regulatory boulders along with the carbon-pricing-costs-too-much twig. How high should the carbon tax be? A few of the signatories are former students of mine so I expect they remember the formula for an optimal emissions tax in the presence of an existing tax system. If not, they can take their copy of Economic Analysis of Environmental Policy by Prof. McKitrick off the shelf, blow off the thick layer of dust and look it up. Or they can consult any of the half-dozen or so journal articles published since the 1970s that derive it. But I suspect most of the other signatories have never seen the formula and don’t even know it exists.

Because if they did, they would know that a major obstacle to emission reductions in Canada is our tax burden. The costlier a tax system, the lower the marginal value of emission reductions and the lower the optimal carbon tax rate. Based on reasonable estimates of the social cost of carbon and the marginal costs of our tax system, our carbon price is already high enough, and probably too high. I say this as one of the only Canadian economists who has published on all aspects of the question. Believing in mainstream climate science and economics does not oblige you to dismiss public complaints that the carbon tax is too costly.

Which raises my final point: the age of mass academic letter-writing has long since passed. Academia has become too politically one-sided. Universities don’t get to spend years filling their ranks with staff drawn from one side of the political spectrum then expect to be viewed as neutral arbiters of public policy issues. As such, the more signatories on letters like this the less impact it will have. People nowadays will make up their own minds, thank you very much, and a well-argued essay by an individual willing to stand alone will likely carry more weight.

Online conversations today are about rising living costs, stagnant real wages and deindustrialization. Even if carbon pricing isn’t the main cause, climate policy is playing a growing role and people can be excused for lumping it all together. The public would welcome insight from economists about how to deal with these challenges. A mass letter enthusing about carbon taxes is no substitute.

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Doubling Down on Missing the Mark

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By Chris Gardner

President, Independent Contractors and Businesses Association

Earlier this year, public opinion research company Leger published the results of a nationwide poll. One result stood out: 70 per cent of Canadians agreed with the statement: “It feels like everything is broken in this country right now.”

To young people, families and business owners struggling to buy or stay in a home, find a doctor, pay for gas and groceries, hire people, worried about how unsafe our streets have become, or having to navigate a never-ending web of red tape to get projects approved, a deep sense of helplessness has set in.

Over the past few years, Canada’s long slow decline has become the subject of an avalanche of scrutiny and by every measure of social well-being and economic competitiveness, Canada is coming up short among its global peers. Canada’s ability to generate opportunities and long-term prosperity for its people is now at serious risk.

But anyone reading the 9th budget of the Trudeau Government looking for some relief from the big challenges that Canadian families and entrepreneurs are facing, will come away sorely disappointed.

It seems that every day there is a new report telling Canadians what they already know – buying or staying in a home has never been harder in this country. Just last week, RBC reported that it is the ‘toughest time ever’ to afford a home and that the share of household income needed to cover ownership costs is now 64% in Canada and an almost inconceivable 106% in Vancouver and 85% in Toronto.

CMHC estimates that we need to build 800,000 homes a year between now and 2030 to meet demand, while CIBC says it’s closer to 1 million. Keep in mind that in 2023 we built about 230,000 new homes.

With the shortage of people across every part of our economy now acute, a central question asked by many is ‘who will build all these homes?’. Our labour markets are undergoing a seismic shift – absent immigration, our population is flat-lining and will start to decline. Indeed, in B.C., in 2022, for the first time ever, natural births exceeded natural deaths – and it happened again last year.

Part of the answer is immigration. However, our immigration system is failing us. Last year we added a city the size of Calgary to our national population, and we are on track to do the same in 2024. Two major challenges have emerged. First, we have failed miserably to assess the skills gaps in our economy – doctors, nurses, technicians, teachers and trades workers – and attract them to Canada. Case in point: only 2% of all permanent immigrants in 2023 will pursue a career in the construction trades. Second, the torrid pace of our population growth is crushing affordability and overwhelming the infrastructure in our major centres. In 2021 there was a total of 1.3MN non-permanent residents in Canada; today we have 2.6MN. We must find a better balance – attract the people with the right skills to power our economy and in numbers that our schools, hospitals, transit systems and housing stock can reasonably absorb.

Canada has a remarkable competitive advantage in its natural resources – energy and minerals in abundance and in high demand. And, harnessing them provides some of the highest paying jobs in the country. Budget 2024 offered barely a passing reference to this enormous potential for Canada. No one should be surprised. Leaders from Germany, Japan and Greece have visited Canada and received the diplomatic equivalent of a cold shoulder at the suggestion that Canada supply their economies with much needed energy. One federal minister stated that Ottawa is ‘not interested in funding LNG projects.’ He missed the point completely – no one was asking Ottawa to fund anything; they simply want Ottawa to get out of the way.

Finally, last year, the CD Howe Institute reported that for every dollar that an American business spends on training, technology and capital – the essential ingredients for innovation – a Canadian company invests 58 cents. Business investment in Canada from 2015 to 2023 ranked 44 out of the 47 most advanced economies, according to the OECD. This matters because the more innovative Canadian firms, the more they spend on upskilling their people and on adopting new technology, the more they can increase the size of paycheques for workers. Canada’s lagging productivity is to the point where the Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada said, “You know those signs that say, ‘In an emergency, break the glass?’ Well, it’s time to break the glass.”

After reading the budget it’s hard not to come away with the feeling that Canada is not a serious country, and the Trudeau Government is incapable of addressing the big challenges facing the country.

Why do so many people feel like everything in this country is broken? Because so much is breaking all around us.

Chris Gardner is the President and CEO of the Independent Contractors and Businesses Association.

The Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA), the largest construction association in Canada, represents more than 4,000 members and clients. ICBA is one of the leading independent providers of group health and retirement benefits in Canada, supporting nearly 170,000 Canadians, and the single largest sponsor of trades apprentices in B.C. ICBA is Merit Canada’s affiliate in B.C. and Alberta.

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Federal government remains intransigent on emissions cap despite dire warnings of harm

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From the Fraser Institute

By Kenneth P. Green

In the face of heavy opposition from Canada’s premiers to Prime Minister Trudeau’s carbon tax, one might have hoped that the prime minister would moderate some of his government’s extreme climate policies. But alas, on a recent swing through Alberta, he threw cold water on any hope of moderation.

When asked in a meeting with a who’s who of Alberta’s energy sector if he might drop the forthcoming cap on greenhouse gas emissions specific to the oil and gas industry, Trudeau reportedly replied “not a chance.” That’s a shame, because it was an opportunity for Canada (and Alberta) to dodge another bullet aimed at its economic heart, and an opportunity to reduce some of the rancor between the West and Ottawa.

And in fact, there are many good reasons to drop the GHG cap.

In a recent report, the Conference Board of Canada estimated oil and gas production cuts due to the cap would lead to a permanent decline in Canada’s real GDP of between 0.9 per cent (the report’s most likely outcome) to 1.6 per cent (its least likely outcome) relative to the baseline in 2030. Which means a loss of $22.8 billion to $40.4 billion in 2012 dollars. In Alberta, real GDP by between 3.8 per cent and 6.7 per cent (or $16.3 billion to $28.5 billion). These are devastating impacts, hand-waved away by the prime minister.

Moreover, the report estimates total employment declines nationally by between 82,000 and 151,000 in 2030. A large part of this unemployment will land in Alberta where the report estimates total employment in the province would decline by between 54,000 and 91,500 jobs. And between 2030 and 2040, employment in Alberta will be between 66,300 and 102,600 lower per year (on average). Again, these are huge economic damages disregarded by the prime minister.

Lastly, as shown in a 2023 study published by the Fraser Institute, even if the proposed cap achieved the emissions reductions government predicts, the reduction would equal four-tenths of one per cent of global emissions, a reduction unlikely to have any impact on the climate in any detectable manner, and hence, to offer only equally undetectable environmental, health or safety benefits.

The Conference Board report, and other studies of the likely high costs and non-existent climate benefits of the pending cap on oil and gas emissions, would offer cover for the prime minister if he backed away from what’s clearly an ill-considered climate policy poised to wreak massive economic harms to Canada, particularly in the West. Apparently, however, he’s unwilling to acknowledge reality and change course.

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