Thursday, January 10, 2008

Carbon tax the best way to cut emissions

You would think that most of Canada's governments would agree on the power of the marketplace.
That's what's driven the great advances in computers, for example, that let anyone with a few hundred dollars buy a machine that outperforms anything available at any price two decades ago.
And it's what makes the drug trade so resilient in the face of decades of police activity. As long as there's serious demand, suppliers will take the needed risks.
But when it comes to climate change, Canadian governments - even free enterprise ones like the federal Conservatives - are reluctant to rely on market forces.
This week the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy weighed in with a report on climate change. More specifically, what needs to be done to reduce greenhouse-gas emmissions.
It was mostly a good news report. The roundtable, an advisory panel set up by Brian Mulroney when he was in office, said Canada could make dramatic cuts without significant harm to the economy.
But it said that to make that happen, the government would have to introduce a carbon tax, a cap-and-trade system, or both.
The principle seems obvious. Companies and governments and individuals won't change their behaviours without some incentives, especially if the change involves short-term sacrifice.
Businesses, for example, have an obligation to make profits for shareholders. If reducing emissions would cut those profits, they're unlikely to take action.
A carbon tax would provide the necessary incentive, the roundtable reported. A tax on fossil fuels - gas and diesel and coal and oil - would make it smart for companies and individuals to use less of them.
The cap-and-trade system works on the same principle. The government - or an agency of government - would set emission caps for industries and organizations. If a company couldn't meet its target, it would have to buy offsetting credits from some other company that was emitting less than it was allowed.
Again, it's a market-based incentive. If carbon credits have value, then it's worth investing in cleaner fuels or more efficient processes. There's an actual return on investment.
The roundtable's support for the idea isn't surprising. The group includes environmental and business leaders. It's headed by David McLaughlin, who until August was Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's chief of staff.
The group has both an understanding of the environmental issues, the business risks and the value of letting the market drive change.
But it took federal Environment Minister John Baird a matter of hours to reject the report's conclusions.
Partly, Baird was just playing politics. "We think a new tax sounds like a Liberal idea," he said, a silly way to dismiss the proposals without dealing with their substance.
He also says the government will ensure that big emitters will pay in some still-to-be-determined way under the Conservatives' climate-change plans.
But the roundtable found that without a carbon tax or cap-and-trade system, the federal government would not meet its targets for greenhouse-gas reductions.
None of this is new. The European Union has a successful carbon-credit trading market and B.C. is working with several states and provinces to launch one.
And Sweden and Norway have carbon taxes. Quebec introduced its own version in October, imposing a 0.8 cents per litre tax on gasoline. The revenue - about $200 million a year - will go to greenhouse-gas reduction measures. Finance Minister Carole Taylor is also considering some sort of carbon tax as part of next month's provincial budget.
The plans would have to be well thought-out. The roundtable said the carbon tax should start at a low level and increase gradually, to give industry a chance to adapt.
If that's done, it said, there would be no serious economic impact.
And Alberta has raised legitimate concerns that a carbon tax would see money taken from the province and redistributed elsewhere.
But the problems are manageable. The Harper government should not be so quick to reject its expert panel's advice.
Footnote: The report offers a good backgrounder for the coming provincial budget. Premier Gordon Campbell declared climate change a central issue a year ago and the province has announced tough targets. But so far, there are few details. The budget will be watched closely for signs of progress.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Basi-Virk trial faces more delays, troubles

More troubling developments in the Basi-Virk government corruption case.
It's been more than four years since the raid on the legislature and the RCMP's warnings about the reach of organized crime.
Things have dragged terribly. Now, the special prosecutor appointed by the Attorney General's Ministry has taken his battle to have a witness testify in secret to the B.C. Court of Appeal. The trial date was set for March; that's now unlikely.
To recap. The RCMP searched the legislature in connection with allegations of corruption in the $1-billion sale of B.C. Rail. Dave Basi, key aide to former finance minister Gary Collins, and Bob Virk, aide to then transport minister Judith Reid, were charged. A lobbyist for one of the bidders will apparently say he supplied the bribes. He wasn't charged.
Progress has been slow, mostly because of failures by the prosecutor and RCMP. In our system, the Crown has to disclose the evidence it has collected to the defence. The process is supposed to be about justice, not winning convictions.
The prosecutor and police have failed to meet their disclosure obligations, drawing repeated rebukes from Justice Elizabeth Bennett,
The latest twist is the prosecutors' application to have a police informant provide evidence in secret.
Not only the public and reporters would be kept in the dark; the Crown wanted defence lawyers barred from hearing the evidence. It's an aggressive legal move, based on a three-month-old Supreme Court of Canada decision.
Last month Bennett rejected the prosecutors' application and ruled the defence lawyers should be present.
But now special prosecutor Bill Berardino is challenging her decision in the B.C. Court of Appeal. Figure a long delay as a result.
It's a tricky issue. Perhaps the testimony is important and can only be obtained in secret. Berardino would have an obligation, you could argue, to fight to ensure it is heard. If he didn't, he could face criticism for not pursuing the case diligently
But the appeal raises fairness issues. Prosecutors can spend endless amounts of public money on hearings and appeals; defendants are mortgaging their futures to pay their legal bills. For the prosecutors, delays have few consequences; for defendants they mean more months or years with unproven criminal charges hanging over them.
Another big issue is about to break. Premier Gordon Campbell promised complete co-operation with the investigation. But now the government is arguing some documents should be kept secret, even though they are relevant.
The government is citing lawyer-client privilege. Anyone has a right to keep conversations with their lawyer secret. That's considered one of the protections needed to allow people the right to a proper defence.
But anyone can also exercise the right to waive solicitor-client privilege - to say that they have nothing to hide and consider the first priority getting at the truth. (The Liberals, in opposition, urged the former government not to use solicitor-client privilege as a justification for withholding information.)
The Campbell government's effort to withhold evidence is a big mistake.
The other interesting development comes courtesy of Bill Tieleman, columnist for 24 Hours, a Vancouver free newspaper (and a New Democrat). Tieleman, who has done a first-rate job covering the trial, did a freedom of information request for the notes of a government public affairs staffer who had been monitoring the trial daily.
There's nothing wrong with that. Given the nature of the case, the government has reason to want to know what's going on.
But Attorney General Wally Oppal originally offered some quite goofy reasons for the premier's office watch on the trial when the news broke. The staffer was there to help the media and the public, he suggested. The FOI response shows that was not true.
This is all getting awfully messy. And much muckier days are ahead.
Footnote: The wrangling over disclosure and other issues has generally not made much news. Expect that to change this year as the trial grows closer and the legal issues - like the Crown's desire to have witnesses testify in secret - become more significant.