The early morning bus had 20 people on it, with room for many more, as vehicles with solo drivers whizzed past in herds. I walked from my stop a few blocks to the Legislature, dodging lines of heavy morning traffic.
It set the stage for the workshop last week on a carbon tax for Manitoba, demonstrating both the problem and what to do about it.
Of course, my taking the bus and walking is not the answer to global warming. Neither is a carbon tax.
But both are places to start, which is how I approached the government’s offer to sit down with an eclectic group of stakeholders and discuss our options for a Made-in-Manitoba solution.
The proof is always in the pudding, but it was a day well spent, even if lurking in the wings was the federal government’s promise (fulfilled on Monday) to impose a carbon tax if we can’t figure it out for ourselves.
Of the two main options, cap-and-trade aims at putting a ceiling on emissions, selling permits for that amount and allowing people to trade them around.
We just don’t have the big emitters here to make that work, however — with a lot of smaller emitters, cap-and-trade fails to address most of Manitoba’s GHG emissions. I have other problems with the idea: our science is too squishy to identify the necessary emissions cap with any confidence. Current linear projections can offer such an extreme reduction target that it seems pointless even to start.
Moreover, emissions trading is nonsense. If all ecology is local, it is no comfort to sit in a toxic swamp and be told everything’s OK because somebody is going to plant 100 trees for me in Brazil to offset the problem.
One major flaw in an economic approach, however, is the idea that increasing the cost of carbon (in everything relating to combustion) by itself will change consumer behaviour. People aren’t that easy to predict; higher gas prices led to an increase in SUV and light truck sales in Manitoba, not the reverse. If there is no alternative — if Exclusive Bus Lines had not taken over the Selkirk run, for example — then people will just pay more. No bus service meant I would have had to drive, whatever the price of gas.
With the second option, a carbon levy, the tax is on what everybody does. It is not only the fuel we use, but all those things made elsewhere that we enjoy here, too. People also spoke of our historical obligations. We contribute three per cent of Canada’s total, which is two per cent of the global total, but we are also responsible for solving the whole problem.
For me, any carbon tax lands on the consumer with a thud — not much of a “trickle-down” effect. (One interesting workshop consensus was that people with lower incomes should be protected from the carbon tax by returning credits directly to them. A second was that any tax must be managed in an absolutely clear and transparent way — whatever is collected goes to GHG mitigation.)
But if the proceeds from that tax allow innovation, if they push changes in consumer behaviour by presenting new and more attractive alternatives, then a carbon tax can have a powerful “trickle-up” effect.
So, we need to rethink the problem and its solution. If I make better choices, in a lifestyle with less stuff, buying fewer things from a distance, it can be contagious. The more of us who change how we live, the fewer carbon emissions we will all produce — and that happens by choice, not because of legislation. It is a non-linear answer to a non-linear problem.
There’s a good word for this process — incrementality — the cumulative effect on a system of many small changes. We are in our current mess because of the incrementality of past bad choices.
Have we got the time to clean things up by making a lot of small, better choices today?
I think so — which makes the important issue not the price of carbon in our carbon tax system, but how we use the money it generates (and our own ingenuity) to lead the world.
And that is entirely possible. We don’t need to replicate the failures of other provinces.
Premier Brian Pallister made the right call this week. With our advantages, Manitoba could not only become a carbon-neutral province (no net increase because of how we live), but actually a carbon-negative one, where we eliminate more carbon than we produce.
Building economic, social and ecological resilience would be good news for all Manitobans, present and future.
Peter Denton teaches the history of technology at the University of Winnipeg and chairs the policy committee of the Green Action Centre.
*This article was originally printed in the Winnipeg Free Press.