by Craig Stevenson
Carbon taxation has taken on a near-religious quality, with its advocates firm in the belief that it must be implemented to halt global environmental degradation. The rallying cry of “we must do something” is deafening as a mantra and intolerant of deviating discussion, particularly regarding the blunt fact that “doing something” as a nation would make little difference in the global scheme of things. Eliminating every Canadian emission tomorrow would do nothing to detract meaningfully from the planet’s contributing tally. China and India and Russia and the United States would go on as before, and we here on the colder and darker section of the continent would be plunged into hardship. Reasonable people understand this fact.
We must not abandon environmental concerns as a matter of government attention. Not at all: but environmental policies must at least be practical and in keeping with the realities of what we can accomplish, while minimizing political posturing and social division. It is unavoidable at this point that we invest on a broad scale in the environment in direct and targeted measures that will produce results. If we are serious about addressing environmental harm in this country, we will turn the carbon tax on its head entirely.
Let’s begin with one simple premise: that in a vast and cold country we must grant ourselves permission to pollute with respect to the basic demands of human comfort and the necessity of movement. To deny and threaten this reality—as proposed by carbon taxation—is to invite hardship and political upheaval.
And then we move on to what can be done to address pressing environmental concerns where and as they exist in this country. Here in eastern Ontario, there are plenty of opportunities to do so, and for our elected leadership to push for what will work instead of appealing to a narrow slice of the population. Federal candidates should push for a range of practical measures that would benefit this area. And, if they do not, our municipal politicians should speak up accordingly and point out where local opportunities fit into the broader environmental picture.
Applied research provides an opportunity to adapt a better environmentalism in this area. Agriculture makes up a major sector of the regional economy, and farmers are already discussing emission-reduction strategies such as carbon sequestration and more fuel-efficient, GPS-guided machinery. Why not reinvent Kemptville Campus, at least in part, as a research facility designed to explore the practical implementation of more environmentally friendly farming methods?
Locally, and across the more populated areas of the country, deforestation and loss of wildlife habitat are topics of great concern where suburban sprawl and agriculture have reduced forest cover. Here is an area where specific tax measures could be used to assign value to ecologically valuable lands on par with their agricultural and housing value. The Conservation Reserve Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture is a model that could be implemented here.
Again, at the local level, the Kemptville Campus affords an opportunity to put workable environmental ideas into practice on an achievable scale. The Agroforestry Centre should be reworked as a regional centre of education for the maple syrup industry. There is no more efficient method of preserving mature forests than demonstrating their value as a means of sequestering carbon, of preserving and enhancing wildlife habitat, and of producing an economically viable market product. The ponds on the Campus, meanwhile, offer an opportunity to demonstrate the ecological value of wetlands.
In each case, there are established organizations with the knowledge and skills to demonstrate the real and potential ecological value of the Campus. And, as a measure of stirring civic interest in practical environmental measures, it would take little to form a charitable “Friends” group for the Campus forest and wetlands that could demonstrate the value of Campus habitat through recreational and educational programming. These are practical measures that our elected officials at each level should pursue—and if they do not, we should push them to do so.
These environmental concerns—and the measures needed to address them—carry a financial cost. On this point, the carbon tax did at least point toward the use of market tools to achieve specific environmental goals. If there is one area where the public appears united in its concern, it is that of the overwhelming wave of disposable plastics and packaging that threaten our waters and landfills. How about a plastics-and-packaging tax, which, in the short term, could fund environmental protections, and which in the longer term might create a market-based incentive to reduce non-recyclable waste? Canadians seem more united on the need to reduce and eliminate excess plastics, and this measure would do much to eliminate carbon emissions resulting from products that are generally unnecessary.
There is a path to a better environmentalism in this country, but a wary and aggrieved electorate ensures that it is narrow and must be tread carefully. Effective political leadership on the environment must focus on what we in Canada can do to preserve ecological diversity and balance the worst effects of emissions-heavy growth. This approach must be based on the practical and the proven, and not grounded in a morality play of divisive grievance.
In still-mostly-rural eastern Ontario, change will come through measures that reflect the character of the people living here—practical in nature, not demonstrative, but with a firm view toward embracing what can be achieved within plain sight.
Anything else risks anger and lost opportunity.