Green surcharge could make carbon tax less onerous

A "green surcharge" on high-income earners in addition to the Liberals’ proposed carbon tax could complement their environmental initiative by distributing the cost of greenhouse gas emissions more equitably.

The green surcharge could also apply to the net profit of all corporations — not only the most significant polluters. Both corporate and individual green surcharge taxes could be applied only above a minimum surcharge threshold and then increase according to one’s income or corporate profit levels.

But if the proposed carbon tax is already proving to be a tough sell to Canadians – as most political analysts agree – won’t it be that much harder, or even impossible, to sell the two taxes? Not necessarily.

The green surcharge tax is based on the premise that it is the collective responsibility of all Canadians to directly address the problem of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and that the rich must share proportionally more of that responsibility. Traditionally, the rich are likeliest to consume more and therefore pollute more.

Viewed in this way, it can be reasoned that a green surcharge tax to complement the carbon tax could actually reduce its negative impact on the poor. That’s because, as it is now conceived, the carbon tax will add extra cost to all goods and services sold to consumers, irrespective of their income. That would leave the poor paying the extra costs of correcting environmental problems caused by the over-consumption of the rich.

Pairing up the two tax systems would be easier to sell to the public as the load will be more equitably distributed. And the carbon tax rate could even be reduced as the green surcharge tax generates new revenue. This would help alleviate fears in Alberta and Saskatchewan that the proposed carbon tax unfairly targets them.

In fact, the carbon tax is intended to be revenue neutral, based on the premise that revenue generated by taxing the polluters will be used to provide tax breaks for the poor and for non-polluters. But who will hold the government accountable for honestly assessing taxation rates and for directing the generated income into productive, environmentally responsible uses?

An ideal use for carbon tax funds would be a direct financial commitment to supporting a national public transit system from coast-to-coast-to-coast that would unify Canada in beneficial and tangible ways.

How can we begin to do this? First and foremost, Canada must look to Europe — not to the U.S. — when it comes to being collective good citizens of planet earth. Successive Canadian governments have committed an inexcusable crime of negligence toward future generations by ignoring the increasing need for a five-star public transit system connecting the Windsor-to-Quebec City corridor, including links to all major airports along this route.

And what about promoting Canada as a world leader in designing and manufacturing state-of-the-art public transit vehicles? We’ve already pioneered the practical use of hydrogen fuel cell technology to run city buses, yet years after the successful introduction of these 100% clean-running buses by BC Transit, there is no ongoing support for other municipalities who want to join the urban transit green revolution.

And why doesn’t our federal government fund research centres to make Canada the number one producer of solar energy and hybrid cars for the general public? Again, we already have the innovation and technology know-how: Canadians invented and built the revolutionary Zenn car, yet our government will not permit it to be driven on public roads here.

And while we are on the topic of innovation, why not fund university research on social ethics and collective behavior modification to move society into the paradigm shift away from excessive energy consumption? Do we expect David Suzuki to do it all by himself? It is far healthier to feel a bit colder in the winter and a bit hotter in the summer and thus enjoy life according to the natural transition of the seasons; the result would be a substantial decrease in energy consumption and even a better quality of life.

Canadians contribute close to two per cent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. That may not seem like much, but when this rate of emission is super-concentrated in our urban areas as it is now, we do not how many in Canada’s large cities die prematurely each year from lung cancer and respiratory or cardiovascular problems due to air pollution.

Canada must distance itself from the irrational decision of the world’s rich nations, who at their recent G-8 summit chose to put profit before people by opting for a vague commitment to achieve minimal environmental goals by 2050.

A better alternative for Canada – and for Liberal leader Stephane Dion – would be to make good politics out of the proposed carbon and green surcharge taxes. But the time for Liberal action is getting shorter by the day and Dion has yet to revisit even the single carbon tax system.

The next federal election is not far off; it will come by October 2009 or sooner. And within the Liberal party, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae seem to be waiting in the wings for Dion to stumble and fall.

Instead, Dion should take this opportunity to stand up and be counted on the environmental front by bringing in a combined green surcharge and carbon tax. Can he do it? Many concerned Canadians hope the answer is yes.