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Tax rich polluters for a just transition

Brian Champ

June 11, 2024
In 2015 when Trudeau came to power there was a sense of relief for many that the Harper era was over. While Harper attacked Indigenous rights openly, sparking the Idle No More movement, Trudeau set a different tone by stating that “no relationship is more important to Canada than the relationship with Indigenous Peoples.”
In a similar vein, the new government declared that Canada was committed to the Paris Climate Accord promising to keep global average temperatures below 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial average.
But last year’s temperatures broke records and rose slightly abovethis critical threshold, demonstrating the failure of the climate “conference of parties” (COP) process. During the 30 years that these meetings have been held greenhouse gas concentrations have doubled.
These meetings have failed because they have not confronted the power and wealth of the fossil fuel industry.  Instead governments have turned to market mechanisms like carbon offsets, carbon pricing and the like, hoping to push investment to climate friendly alternatives.
The impetus is on individual actors, whether companies or people, to modify fossil fuel consumption rather than confronting their production. Under COP rules, governments are responsible for the carbon emissions that occur within their borders. Emissions from the burning of exported fossil fuels are not included – only those emitted during production.
This provides us with the paradox of a Liberal climate plan that purports to nudge economic behaviour through carbon offsets, cap and trade plans and carbon pricing, while continuing to subsidize the fossil fuel industry and building export pipelines over Indigenous territories without free, prior and informed consent.
There are tax breaks and subsidies for renewable energy projects, battery production, EV development and for mining “critical” minerals. But private industry is in charge when it is clear that we need large, public programs for the just transition to a sustainable economy.
Climate scientists continue to raise the alarm for a thoroughgoing transition in how our societies produce and consume energy, and mass movements have pushed for radical action to prevent further climate disasters.
But in Canada, the debate on climate action in mainstream politics is mainly centred on arguments for or against the carbon tax.
Tory leader Pierre Polievre (PP) has been making political hay on what he calls “ongoing carbon tax crisis and the financial burden it places on Canadians.”
For PP, this is the real crisis - not a planet on fire, with vulnerable people facing droughts, floods, fires and extreme weather impacting their access to food and clean water.
Behind the pretended concern for ordinary people struggling to make ends meet is the denial of the need for urgent action to address the climate crisis, spreading fear and division to blunt opposition to corporate rule.
While PP has argued that “everybody understands that tax is driving people to the food bank” in an effort to gain from the pain most working people are feeling, he remains absolutely silent on tens of billions in continuing oil and gas industry subsidies.  
The “Axe the Tax” messaging connects with the far right politics at the centre of the “Freedom Convoy” movement – at a recent anti-tax encampment PP photo op the far right Diagolon flag and #SaveCanada hashtag were visible.
Federal Tory polling numbers have been rising since last summer: in 2024 so far, their numbers range from 36 to 46%; Liberals, 23 to 28%; and for the NDP, 15 to 22%.
Underlying these numbers is the rising cost of living that has been a major burden on working people. This is the background behind a rising tide of strikes by workers across the country.
But the carbon tax is not responsible for these price rises. Growing inequality is being driven by falling or stagnant real wages, the privatization of public services and inflationary profit taking and price gouging by grocery chains and oil companies.
When the carbon price rose from $65 to $80 per tonne of carbon on April 1st. gas pump prices rose by 3.3 cents per litre and “natural” gas prices rose by 2.9 cents per cubic metre.
But gas pump and “natural” gas prices fluctuated by 34 cents per litre and 21 cents per cubic metre respectively over the past year. These price fluctuations depend on the interaction between supply and demand on a local, regional and global scale.
But there is certainly a kernel of truth in PP’s rhetoric since consumption taxes are regressive, increasing costs for working people. And they target individual consumption habits rather than impacting the profits of corporations that continue to benefit from fossil fuel production.
Supporters of carbon pricing will point out that it is revenue neutral, with rebates flowing back to households so they can spend them on climate friendly options. But these options are limited precisely because of the failure of governments to develop them directly.
In reality, the sham Liberal climate plan is a cover for the continuing subsidies to fossil fuel production – over $21 billion in 2022 – that perpetuates rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.
While NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has made some comments that hint at the need to end fossil fuel subsidies, the federal party has chosen to prop up the federal Liberals in return for very little. This leaves the field clear for the “F*ck Trudeau” politics of the far right that is pushing the whole political spectrum to the right.
This has serious implications for the next federal elections in 2025. Without a left expression of the political polarization it seems clear that disillusion with Trudeau will boost the likelihood of a Polievre government.
While this is a scary prospect, there is hope in the fact of surging movements. This includes continuing strikes and organizing drives by workers fighting to keep their heads above the waters of inflation. It includes 8 months and counting of pro-Palestine protests in cities and towns across the country and the amazing student encampments that have drawn more working class support.
The climate and Indigenous sovereignty movements have fallen from the heights of the 2019 global climate strikes and the early 2020 #ShutdownCanada road, rail and port blockades in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en land defenders. These called into question the inadequacy of the official climate plans and put forward demands for climate justice that linked communities of struggle from below to confront the system that increases inequality and undermines life on the planet.
The fires of this movement are still smoldering with struggles continuing that could ignite into mass action. But in order to do so we need to be clear that it is the priorities of capitalism that need to be confronted. We cannot survive under a system that relies on the exploitation of labour and the expropriation of Indigenous land for the profits of those at the top.
Taxes on consumption, like the carbon tax – even with rebates for most – eat into the already meagre resources of working people. And they take governments and profitable companies off the hook for the crisis that they have created.
There are far more useful options – calling for an end to all subsidies for oil and gas companies and a tax on their profits could generate far more revenue to fund government programs for the just transition to a low carbon economy. A wealth tax, such as has been proposed by could also generate tremendous revenue to fund these necessary programs.
And these public programs could provide many climate jobs that would be the basis of a sustainable economy, as well as restoring funding for public services like healthcare and education that are under attack. This would be far more attractive to working people than the existing sham plan that has does not lead to a transition at all.
The task may seem daunting, in the absence of good programs and policies on offer in mainstream politics, but we must draw inspiration from the global Intifada against the genocide in Gaza that is calling into question the Israeli state, US imperialism and the complicity of Canada’s rulers. In the face of overwhelming propaganda from the top, this unprecedented movement is changing the face of the world and drawing broader forces into this struggle for justice.

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