Chairman's Desk

The Supreme Court’s ruling on carbon pricing is a political windfall for the Liberals, but also a chance for Erin O’Toole to make hay

The Supreme Court has spoken. Climate change — and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions — is a matter of national concern.

In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled that the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act is constitutional and that the federal government indeed has the authority to implement or require provinces to implement a minimum price on carbon.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Richard Wagner argued that the issue of reducing GHGs to address climate change meets the definition of a “matter of national concern” and thus can fall within Parliament’s exclusive jurisdiction.

In the majority’s view, climate change “is causing significant environmental, economic and human harm nationally and internationally, with especially high impacts in the Canadian Arctic, coastal regions and on Indigenous peoples.”

The majority also agreed that the provinces do not have sufficient ability to address climate change independently. Provincial governments, they reasoned, do not have authority to implement a consistent standard across the entire country and, further, the withdrawal or refusal of a single province or territory would “jeopardize its success in the rest of Canada.”

In short: we are all in this together.

The prime minister has used similar reasoning before. Speaking about the pricing act in Parliament in 2016, Trudeau remarked that “because pollution crosses borders, all provinces must do their part.”

The ruling itself is a gift to the Liberals ahead of another election, because it finally settles the prolonged debate over the constitutionality of the law. Opponents will continue to attack carbon pricing in the court of public opinion, but for now at least, the legal challenges have ended.

Beyond that, the language in the ruling is a boon for team Trudeau. Having identified climate change as a matter of national concern, the court’s decision seems to imply that a federal government — regardless of politics — is not just empowered but expected to take appropriate action. Canadians respect the impartiality of our highest court, so the language of the ruling will serve the Liberals well as they gear up for an election.

At the same time, the decision presents a unique challenge for the leader of the Opposition.

Last week, Erin O’Toole attempted to usher in a new era for his party by declaring, in his speech at the CPC policy convention, that the debate over the reality of climate change was “over.”

Not so fast.

Delegates later voted against a motion recognizing that climate change is real (albeit one with wider policy implications). After the vote, O’Toole continued with his stake in the ground by declaring, “I am in charge.”

And while he is indeed in charge, he is going to have to deal with the court’s commentary on the “national concern” standard and the responsibilities attached to it.

But here is where there may be a silver lining for O’Toole.

Notwithstanding the inevitable protests of Western MPs who fiercely oppose any form of carbon pricing, the party desperately needs a sincere strategy on climate action.

It has become rote for pundits — and pollsters — to say that the CPC cannot win another election without a serious climate plan, so why do we keep ignoring them?

My hope is that the settled legal case allows O’Toole some breathing room to develop a Conservative approach to carbon pricing — and in so doing, garner the party enough support in Ontario, and elsewhere, to win an election.

A genuine Conservative climate plan could achieve what O’Toole and his predecessor have failed to do to date: prove to Canadians that the CPC is a modern party, open to change, reflective of and responsive to their concerns.

Let the opponents find support in provincial governments who — like the three dissenting justices — can attack what they see as the law’s jurisdictional overreach rather than climate action generally.

Two elections and, now a decision of the Supreme Court, have settled this matter.

It is now time for the federal Conservatives to pick a different fight.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 28, 2021.

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