The last few weeks brought plenty of multilateral agreements. ICAO, the UN’s aviation arm, has agreed to partially control emissions from international flights after 2020. The Montreal Protocol has been amended to phase out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), refrigerants with a much higher warming potential than carbon dioxide. Last but not least, the Paris Agreement has received the required number of ratifications and will soon enter into force.
Now, it is time for unilateral actions. Individual countries have a duty to put in place the policies required to meet the targets agreed to in Montreal, Kigali and Paris (and possibly to exceed them, as the treaties’ prescriptions are not enough to prevent runaway climate change in the future). This is why, instead of applauding the wisdom of the crowd, we should instead salute a single resolution: Justin Trudeau, Canada’s young and spirited prime minister, has just announced a plan to discourage greenhouse emissions by putting a price on carbon. Every province may choose which way to go: a cap-and-trade system (as originally suggested by the Kyoto Protocol) or just a plain tax on carbon emissions.
“Offsets are like the indulgences sold by the church in the Middle Ages”
Trudeau – who was born in Quebec and studied in British Columbia – knows that a flat-out tax is the solution. According to his plan, whichever system each province chooses, there must be a minimum price per ton of carbon of CAD $10 by 2018, rising to at least $50 by 2022. He favours the tax route because of the bold, unilateral steps taken in 2007 by Quebec and British Columbia; not only did British Columbia impose a carbon tax, it also pioneered a ‘revenue-neutral’ solution. The $1.2 billion raised every year by its $30 carbon tax is used to ease the middle-class income tax rate and provide benefits for lower-income citizens. By contrast, a cap-and-trade system operates by putting a ceiling on emissions, while allowing utilities and plants to buy and sell permits to emit. ‘Offsets are like the indulgences sold by the church in the Middle Ages,’ climatologist James Hansen protests.
For a country such as Canada, that owns the world’s biggest reserves of the dirty yet lucrative Alberta tar sands, this is a doubly brave unilateral move. If we are truly to save the planet, many more such acts – from airlines, corporations and entire nations – are needed.
This was published in the November 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.