This article originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal.
By Jerome Gessaroli, September 30, 2022
Polls show that conservative Canadians are less inclined than progressive Canadians to prioritize environmental issues. That is unfortunate, as climate policies will only succeed if all major constituents throughout the country see them as valuable. It is not that conservatives don’t care; rather, they are opposed to how environmental policy is discussed and constructed.
Left and left-leaning progressives have dominated the environmental movement and shaped policies based on centralized big government and regulatory top-down principles. They have also inserted other social justice issues into the environmental movement, using such terms such as “climate justice” and “environmental racism.” Reflexively, conservatives will recoil at this approach.
Engaging and encouraging conservatives to support action on the environment and climate change is possible by creating policies that respect important conservative values. Such values include taking personal responsibility, protecting private property, and encouraging growth through competitive markets. It is quite possible to create effective environmental and climate policies around these values.
Personal responsibility includes paying for the pollution one creates. Taxing pollution puts a price on it, requiring companies to pay for how much they pollute. The challenging part here is designing a pollution tax that is strictly revenue-neutral and does not unduly burden those who rely on fossil fuel use in their jobs or where they reside. For example, those living in rural areas requiring trucks or farmers needing to fuel their equipment should be provided larger tax offsets to compensate for the higher carbon taxes they’ll pay. The incentive to reduce carbon emissions will still be in place, since using more fuel-efficient equipment and vehicles will reduce the carbon tax they pay and result in overall lower taxes.
In addition, any tax must only affect those companies that pollute. Too often, governments use the pretext above to impose a tax but then apply it too widely and to use the tax as an additional revenue source. Back in 2008, British Columbia introduced a well thought-out carbon tax. However, in 2017, the NDP government removed its revenue neutrality, and it is now another tax that adds to the government’s coffers.
Second, protecting private property includes valuing environmental benefits that reside on private property. Just as there should be a cost to polluting by those who pollute, there also should be benefit to private property owners for conserving environmentally important land for the public’s benefit. Think of the habitat of endangered species.
Unfortunately, regulations dealing with endangered species on private lands can create perverse incentives that increase the extinction risk. The regulations can be so burdensome that property owners are incentivized to prematurely destroy endangered species habitats on their property, to avoid future punitive regulatory costs. Shawn Regan, an environmental economist, explains the misaligned rules this way: “If I have a rare metal on my property, its value goes up, but if a rare bird occupies the land, its value disappears.” By pricing environmental benefits, property owners have an incentive to conserve.
Third, the market economy is often blamed for pollution, but that assertion is incorrect. In the 1980s, Eastern European countries in the Soviet bloc had neither a market economy nor private property rights, yet those countries experienced terrible environmental degradation. For example, these countries on average used 75 per cent more energy per dollar of GDP as compared to the United States. And although they accounted for only 12 per cent of European output, eastern bloc countries contributed to over half of the continent’s particulate air pollution. This is but one of a multitude of pollution statistics created by their socialist system.
Competitive markets can help the environment. Capitalism creates economic growth. And according to the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy on sustainability, there is a strong positive relationship between economic wealth and environmental stewardship. This makes sense. Those with greater wealth can afford and invest in more sustainable activities.
Market competition also improves how resources are used. For example, North American sawmill efficiency has improved to the extent that wood waste has declined from 55 per cent in the 1930s to 0.8 per cent by 2012. And the industry is still innovating by looking for ways to increase wood reuse and recycling.
It is possible to develop policies for the environment that are based on conservative values. Far too often, we look to the government for solutions. In turn, we get layer upon layer of costly regulatory burden. Not only do they diminish our ability to prosper, but they are often poorly designed and fail to meet their environmental goals.
By recognizing that conservative values are complementary, rather than opposed, to environmental stewardship, we will be in a better position to engage with conservatives and encourage them to join a non-partisan effort to protect the environment and fight climate change. Such efforts will not only be more effective but also sustainable in the long term, irrespective of whether conservatives or progressives hold office.
Jerome Gessaroli teaches at the British Columbia Institute of Technology and is a Visiting Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.