Comrade Kent And His Five Year Plan

For free-market zealots, the Harper Conservatives sure are behaving like Communists on climate change.

And yes, I know that’s not the standard take. Stephen Harper has oil in his veins, we are told. He thinks climate change is a fraud and he’ll happily strip mine northern Alberta and drown Bangladesh and starve Africans for a buck. Or something like that.

It may be true. I don’t know. As I’ve noted before, I can’t read minds. But I do know the government’s official position is very different.

“Climate change is one of the most serious environmental issues facing the world today,” declared Peter Kent, the new environment minister, in a recent speech before the Economic Club of Canada. Kent didn’t wink when he spoke those words. He didn’t smirk. He was emphatic and, apparently, sincere. The Conservative government “is determined to do our part for the planet,” he said.

“We inscribed our 2020 (greenhouse gas) reduction target in the Copenhagen Accord, and don’t let anyone tell you that it’s not an ambitious target.” He’s right. The Harper government is committed to cutting emissions 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020. Arguably, that’s not enough. But it is substantial. And it won’t happen easily. Kent was admirably clear in saying the government hasn’t done nearly enough to achieve its goals. But it would, he insisted.

Unfortunately, that is where the Communism kicks in.

Ask any economist not educated in Havana to name the most efficient way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and he or she will instantly say, “put a price on emissions.” Right now, we pay nothing for the greenhouse gases released by our activities. Individuals pay nothing. Corporations pay nothing. The atmosphere is a big, free dump. And there’s no limit. Whether you’re a vegan living in a straw hut or an oil executive tooling around in your third Hummer, you pay nothing.

A carbon tax puts a price on emissions, as does a cap-and-trade system (in which total emissions are capped and emission permits are traded). The price creates an incentive, which changes everything. Emit less, pay less: That’s persuasive stuff. And it’s efficient because it isn’t some bureaucrat in Ottawa who decides who will reduce emissions and how they will do it. It’s consumers and corporations – each one making unique decisions based on their unique circumstances.

Anyone with the slightest understanding of markets knows this. And since Stephen Harper has a master’s degree in economics, one would assume that includes him. But apparently not.

“Achieving our objectives requires a systematic approach of regulating GHG emissions sector by sector,” said Peter Kent. Translation: Some bureaucrat in Ottawa will decide who will reduce emissions and how they will do it.

This is old school command-and-control regulation. Order the Vladivostok Power Plant to install a new type of scrubber. Direct the October Revolution Factory to retrofit with pipe insulation of a particular specification. This Kremlin-knows-best approach is what made the Soviet Union such a model of efficient production. Left shoes? We have eight for every person in the Motherland. Right shoes? Maybe in the next Five Year Plan.

And it’s not just inefficient. It also opens the way to abuse, even corruption. Say you’re the boss of People’s Shoe Factory #17 and you really want to screw People’s Shoe Factory #18. You could try to out-produce them. Or you could try to convince the Kremlin that #18 should be subjected to a burdensome new directive that you, naturally, would be exempt from. In the old Moscow, that sort of thing was done with party connections. It’s much easier in Ottawa. Look under “L” for lobbyist. Just be sure to pick one with party connections.

The new requirement for biofuel content in gasoline is a classic example. As a means of reducing greenhouse gases, it’s not worth much. But as a giveaway to agri-business, it’s worth a fortune. And who convinced the Kremlin to make it law? A key lobbyist was Kory Teneycke – who then went to work in the Kremlin as Stephen Harper’s director of communications.

Of course Comrade Kent may protest that the Obama administration has also decided to go the command-and-control route, which it has. But it is a last resort for Obama, who was forced to give up on cap-and-trade by a Congress which has been taken over by right-wing lunatics who think climate change is a socialist plot.

The Harper government has no such excuse. All three opposition parties support putting a price on emissions. All three recognize the importance of harnessing market forces if we are to get the job done efficiently. Only Stephen Harper sees no role for the free market.

Apparently he got his degree in Havana.