How Erin O’Toole can resolve his climate dilemma

Originally published by The Hill Times

When the Liberals announced their ambitious new climate plan last month, which includes raising the carbon price through 2030, they upped the ante on what credible climate policy should look like.

With a federal election looming on the horizon, it’s now up to Erin O’Toole and the Conservative Party to propose a serious climate plan of their own. O’Toole has made a start by committing not only to the Paris climate targets—a 30 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030—but also to a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. Now the Conservative leader needs to back up those commitments with policy that he can sell to the public. And that policy package will need to include carbon pricing.

Though he may have attacked the carbon tax during the Conservative leadership race last year, that position left O’Toole in a bit of a jam. The alternatives to carbon pricing—namely, heavy reliance on spending and regulation to reduce emissions—are decidedly unconservative, and will cost Canadians more than the carbon tax, at a time when they can least afford it. Conservatives should understand this better than anyone.

If he doesn’t include a price on carbon emissions in his climate plan, O’Toole will also have a hard time winning the critical Ontario swing ridings around Toronto—the famous 905 region. Polling shows that a majority of swing voters in the 905 won’t vote for a party that doesn’t have a credible climate plan, and that a majority also believes carbon pricing should be part of such a plan.

A carbon price that returns money to Canadians is the most affordable and effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Everyone from conservative economists to Canadian oil and gas company executives agree.

But until now, Conservatives feared that changing direction on carbon pricing could alienate their Western base. New polling by Clean Prosperity and Léger shows that this fear is unfounded.

In a recent poll of Conservative-held ridings in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, two-thirds of Western Conservative voters said they would support Erin O’Toole if he proposed a carbon pricing policy in order to help the party win government. And that’s before he even has a chance to explain to Conservative voters why this policy makes sense.

The risk that carbon pricing could harm the party’s electoral fortunes has clearly been overblown. In the safest Conservative ridings in Western Canada—where the party won by more than 50 per cent in the 2019 federal election—the Clean Prosperity/Léger poll found that putting a price on carbon would cost the Conservatives about five percent of their votes, still leaving them far ahead of the Liberals. But in competitive ridings, where the margin of Conservative victory was much tighter, the poll found that support for carbon pricing would have virtually no effect on Conservative fortunes.

So O’Toole’s carbon pricing dilemma isn’t nearly as big a problem as he may have imagined. That’s probably because most Canadians understand that carbon pricing is fundamentally sound climate policy, and shouldn’t be a partisan issue. The Conservatives don’t have to let the Liberals own climate, nor do they have to copy the Liberal climate policy playbook. Instead, they should propose a Conservative carbon pricing policy.

For example, we know that Conservatives prefer to tax the things we all want less of—like carbon pollution—rather than things we want more of, like income. Western and 905 polling both show that combining carbon pricing with income tax cuts could be a net vote winner for the party.

A carbon tax paired with income tax cuts could resolve O’Toole’s dilemma and position the party to compete strongly with the Liberals in the next election, right across Canada. It would make sense to the party, it would appeal to current and prospective Conservative voters alike, and it could earn votes in both the party’s Western strongholds and the Ontario swing ridings it needs in order to form government.

If not now, then when? And if not a price on carbon, then what? It’s very hard to compete with carbon pricing’s effectiveness and affordability. Canadians across the country are eager to hear O’Toole’s ideas about how to reach our 2030 climate targets, and net zero by 2050.

Suggested Reading