The Largest Issue for the 2019 Election: the Environment

The new year has just recently arrived but there is already increasing talk of the upcoming federal election scheduled to take place in October. Every election has a wide range of topics that are top of mind for the electorate and typically the economy is the most important issue of them all. However, if the economy remains strong up to election day, the most important issue will instead be the environment, specifically the federal carbon tax that has recently come into effect.

The central pillar of the Liberal government’s environmental plan is the carbon tax that began this year at $20 a tonne of emissions and increases yearly by $10 increments until it reaches $50 per tonne of emissions in 2022. Neither the federal NDP nor the Conservatives have yet to present their environmental plans if elected but it is clear that the NDP supports a tax on pollution while the Conservatives do not.

Since the last federal election in 2015, many provincial NDP and Liberal governments that were supportive of taxing pollution through either a carbon tax or a cap and trade program have been defeated and replaced by Conservative governments with no plans to put a price on pollution. Under the previous Ontario Liberal government, a cap and trade program had been put in place along with Quebec and California. However, the new Conservative party, under the leadership of Doug Ford, has begun the process of dismantling this cap and trade program. Meanwhile in Alberta, the NDP government is facing long odds to being re-elected in May. The official opposition, the United Conservative Party, is expected to win a majority government and they have made it clear that they adamantly oppose any tax on carbon.

Alberta and Ontario represent the two largest emitting provinces in Canada and combine for 60% of Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2016. Canada as a whole cannot have an efficient environmental plan without putting a price on pollution in Canada’s highest emitting provinces. Since the current Ontario government and the most likely upcoming Alberta government have presented no credible plans to reduce their emissions, the onus falls on the federal government to put a price on emissions.

The opposition to the carbon tax does not come from a lack of desire to address environmental issues but rather from a hostility to new and increasing taxes. The federal government has attempted to minimize the initial inconvenience of the carbon tax by starting with a low tax on pollution and increasing it incrementally. However, large tax increases are toxic regardless of their intension. One only needs to consider the introduction of the GST by the federal Conservatives, which, in part, led to their worst election showing ever with only two elected MPs in the following election in 1993.

The environment has become an increasingly important topic in federal elections as the consequences of climate change become better known and more widely observed. The carbon tax will be the largest issue of the federal election for both those in favor and opposed to it, but for different reasons. For those opposed to the carbon tax, it will be a fight against just another unnecessary tax. Meanwhile, for those who support the carbon tax, this will be an election to ensure Canada maintains a feasible plan to reduce its emissions. Both sides will be further galvanized by the fact that the carbon tax is now in effect and that without the federal government imposing it, there will be no price on pollution in Canada’s largest emitting provinces. The 2019 election will end up being the first election in Canadian history where the environment is the largest issue.