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Taking a Cue from the Canadian Election's Focus on Climate Change

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Imagine for a minute an election in which green issues like carbon taxes and renewable energy take center stage -- an election in which 60 percent of voters recently made clear that climate change will be a top issue, or even the issue, guiding their ballot. Sound far-fetched?

Maybe in the United States, where other issues, like the economy, have (understandably) come to occupy a more prominent position -- but not in Canada, where the October election pitting incumbent Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper against Liberal party leader Stéphane Dion and a number of third parties.

Indeed, while climate change, and, to a lesser extent, energy (save from the "debate" over offshore drilling, of course), remain on the periphery of most American voters' minds, the issue has come to almost dominate the Canadian election. (According to a recent Gallup survey, climate change and the environment rank dead last for both Democratic and Republican voters.) One need only look at the two challengers' policy agendas to appreciate the importance they attach to these critical issues.

Dion, for example, often touts the merits of his "Green Shift" plan, a set of policies that would put into place a nationwide carbon tax and modestly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Elizabeth May, the Green Party leader, would go a few steps further with her "Vision Green" plan, pushing for deeper emission cuts, instituting a higher carbon price and make natural resources an integral component of Canada's worth.

Despite a few differences, both plans offer an equally stark contrast with Harper's own set of "green" initiatives. To put it more bluntly, the politician with whom you might most closely associate Harper's school of thinking on the environment is, wait for it, George W. Bush. Like our own dear president, Harper has often expressed deep skepticism about the reality of man-made climate change, dismissing it at one point as nothing more than a "socialist hoax" (no doubt bringing a smile to the face of fellow skeptic Sen. James Inhofe).

Soon after taking over as Prime Minister from the Liberals in 2006, Harper quickly reversed most of the progress on climate change his country had made in recent years -- dropping its Kyoto commitment faster than you can say "Bush" and fast-tracking the development of Alberta's tar sands -- arguably one of the world's worst sources of emissions.

While he and his party now profess to "recognize" the importance of climate change, they argue that moderation -- particularly when it comes to cutting greenhouse gas emissions -- is necessary to minimize the economic impact. Whereas Harper's plan calls for a 20 percent reduction in emissions below 2006 levels by 2020 -- hardly an ambitious, let alone modest, goal -- Dion's would require emissions be cut by 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

Both also support the implementation of a market-based cap-and-trade system, though Harper's proposal would do (very) little in actuality to reduce emissions since it won't even impose a mandatory cap. While I wouldn't exactly call Dion's plan a home-run either, he at least supports a potentially much more effective policy: a carbon tax. (Predictably, Harper recently declared that the Liberals' carbon tax would "wreck" Canada's economy.)

The tax would start at a relatively modest C$10 per ton of carbon dioxide and reach C$40 per ton within four years. To make it revenue neutral, the increase in the carbon tax would be matched by income tax cuts. Prices at the pump wouldn't be affected since a gasoline tax is already being levied, and the plan would spare diesel and aviation fuel prices for the first year. The net effect would be to greatly increase the price of coal and, it is hoped, spur interest in alternative energy technologies and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS).

Despite garnering significant attention from the candidates and press, climate change and energy may not sway the final outcome of the election. Proving that Canadian voters can be as fickle as Americans, Stephen Harper currents holds a significant lead over Stéphane Dion -- 38 percent to 26 percent. Like the American presidential contest, Canada's election could hinge on that old favorite: It's the economy, stupid!

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