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Killing the ‘carbon tax’ is back while some Conservatives seek credible climate plans

Conservatives for Clean Growth defines itself as seeking a stable long-term plan to reach net-zero
A B.C. government program that uses a portion of the carbon tax paid by emitters to contribute to projects that reduce greenhouse gases in areas such as mining, pulp and paper, cement, agriculture, and oil and gas was won global recognition. Carbon tax costs are reduced if an industry can show they are among the lowest emitting in the world for their sector. (Black Press file photo/ AP Photo / Matthew Brown, File)

A group of longtime Conservatives is advocating for leadership hopefuls to develop credible climate plans at the same time as cancelling the federal carbon price has emerged as one of the first promises out of the race.

Ken Boessenkool, executive director of the recently launched Conservatives for Clean Growth, said Friday it doesn’t view a consumer carbon price as the make-or-break feature of a good plan to tackle climate change.

The group announced itself shortly after the Tories began their search for a new leader and Candice Bergen, its interim leader, shelved the party’s support for the carbon price policy introduced by former leader Erin O’Toole. Bergen has left the matter to be decided in the leadership race.

On its website, Conservatives for Clean Growth defines itself as believing in the need for the party to have a “stable, credible, long-term” plan to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

“There are many ways to get there,” said Boessenkool, who previously served as an adviser to different conservative leaders, including former prime minister Stephen Harper. “There’s incentives or smart regulations, relying on technology.”

Pierre Poilievre, the high-profile Ottawa-area MP who was the first to declare his candidacy last month, travelled to Saskatchewan this week to release his energy policies, which began with a promise to cancel the Liberal government’s consumer carbon price.

Calling it a “tax,” Poilievre framed the issue to be one around cost and instead pledged that his environmental plan would focus on technology.

“I’m the only candidate for prime minister that will protect people’s paycheques and make life more affordable by cancelling the carbon tax,” he said in Regina on Friday.

Boessenkool said the new group, which he co-founded alongside former federal cabinet minister Lisa Raitt and ex-Alberta cabinet minister Jim Dinning, wants to work with any candidate on their proposals.

“What policy is Pierre Poilievre going to use to develop a credible climate change policy that is going to use technology? And that is the question that Conservatives should be asking him,” Boessenkool said.

“He said he’s going to address climate with technology — great, how?”

“If all Canadians hear about our climate plan is what we’re against, they can be forgiven for thinking, we’re against climate. And that’s not enough.”

In terms of details, Poilievre said he would put in place targets to reduce carbon-related emissions and then leave it up to provinces to decide how to proceed, naming off the use of nascent technology like carbon capture and storage as well as small modular nuclear reactors.

During his stop in Regina, he also trotted out popular rallying cries for party members to whom the development of the oil and gas industry matter, particularly those in Western Canada. He pledged to repeal a Liberal government ban on oil tankers off the coast of northern British Columbia as well as build more pipelines.

The renewed debate around carbon pricing and how Conservatives will handle climate policy more broadly comes after party members and some MPs reacted with shock at O’Toole’s decision to introduce one last spring, which was welcomed by researchers and different green technology advocacy groups.

His decision followed the plan former leader Andrew Scheer campaigned on during the 2019 federal election, which didn’t include a carbon price and was slammed by experts as insufficient.

Scheer, who appeared alongside Poilievre at his announcement Friday, was to formally endorse him that evening, making him the latest MP to do so.

“It seemed like when Mr. O’Toole adopted that policy, that it was the moment where the Conservatives had crossed the Rubicon on this issue,” said Michael Bernstein, executive director of Clean Prosperity, a non-profit that championed the Tories’ embrace of carbon pricing.

Almost one year later, Bernstein said it’s apparent that’s no longer the case.

“I don’t think it’s clear where they’re going to land,” he said.

Bernstein added that whatever happens one thing is for certain. Polling data shows voters in swing ridings, which Conservatives need to capture if they hope to form government in the next general election, support carbon pricing.

When it comes to how believable a climate plan could be without a carbon price, Bernstein said it’s doable, but it would mean having a heavier reliance on fuel standards to help drive down emissions, which would end up costing consumers more money in the long run.

So far, Poilievre is the lone candidate in the Conservative leadership race but others have until April 19 to declare.

Those considering running include former Quebec premier Jean Charest, who introduced a cap-and-trade system in that province, as well as Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, who supported a carbon price levy when he was leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives.

More recently, Brown penned a letter to Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland to forgo the federal carbon price increase planned for April 1.

– Stephanie Taylor and Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press