A final note on Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission
This week, Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission released its final report. While we have a few loose ends to tie up in 2020, the report signals the end of our research mandate. Over the last five years, we’ve contributed to policy conversations across Canada about water, waste, traffic, risk, and climate change. I’d like to think that we’ve helped to advance those conversations, by drawing on the best evidence we could find, by engaging a range of audiences in different ways, and by providing practical policy advice for governments at all levels across Canada.
As we wrap things up, let me sign off with a few final thoughts about the Ecofiscal Commission from my vantage point.
The economic case for environmental policy
I’ll start by taking you behind the curtain.
All of Ecofiscal’s policy recommendations are the product of consensus across our Commissioners, 13 (rather impressive) economists from across the country. Many of those economists are mainstream economists, not environmental specialists. Some of our commissioners specialize in tax policy and economic growth, some in macroeconomics, some in policy fairness They have all spent their careers driving a range of economic policy issues forward, either from within government, from outside its doors, or both.
What a privilege it has been to work with—and learn from—these very clever people.
At the same time, it’s pretty incredible that they all united to create Ecofiscal behind one idea: good environmental policy makes economic sense. That convergence really does illustrate that environment and economy need not be in opposition. Short-term prosperity that comes at the expense of our land, air, and water is not prosperity at all. Without a strong environment, we cannot have a strong economy. And vice versa: cost-effective policy can protect the environment and sustain a growing economy and the jobs and income for Canadians that comes with it.
There’s also more to it. The Commissioners didn’t create Ecofiscal because environmental issues pose interesting intellectual policy challenges. They joined because they care deeply about the issues. They thought Canada could do better. They still do.
Plenty of room for debate
That doesn’t mean that Commissioner meetings were campfire sing-alongs. When it comes to the details, consensus around our advice has been hard fought. As part of our process for every report, Commissioners have (hotly!) debated the evidence we assembled and the policy recommendations that followed.
Having attended every single Ecofiscal meeting, I can assure you that economists don’t agree on everything. Some firmly believe that revenue from carbon pricing should be used to reduce other taxes. Others lean toward using revenues to address other priorities. Some think carbon pricing provides a golden opportunity to eliminate other, more expensive policies. Others are more focused on how carbon pricing works best as part of package of policies.
These debates are legitimate and healthy. They are even helpful, both around the Ecofiscal table and as part of political discourse across Canada. In many cases, there is no “right” answer as to how we should weigh trade-offs. And by taking those debates seriously we can collectively move toward better policy with broader support.
That doesn’t mean that every argument about pollution pricing—whether on social media or from our politicians—is a useful one. Debate only leads to better policy if it is founded on solid evidence. Too often, Canadians have been faced with misleading analysis and statements, especially against carbon pricing. Misconceptions around environmental policy are key barrier to moving forward.
Clearing the air
Over time, we’ve tried to take on those debates by relaying good evidence to Canadians, while staying objective and non-partisan.
For example, we’ve explained why:
- Waste pricing can help us to cut our waste, both solid and fiscal;
- User fees for water and wastewater can protect our infrastructure and our water;
- Good policy means we don’t need to be stuck in traffic (with an economist or otherwise);
- Carbon pricing is important, and why it works;
- Governments should choose wisely when they recycle carbon pricing revenue back to the economy; and
- Other, non-pricing climate policies have a role to play too.
Progress made, progress left to make
Over time, we’ve even seen some convergence around policies actually implemented by governments. We have a carbon price across the country. Moreover, governments of all stripes and in all regions now seem to accept that output-based carbon pricing is a useful way to drive emissions reductions and protect the competitiveness of Canadian industry.
Yet there’s still more to do. Though Vancouver seems open to possibilities, congestion pricing (and the traffic relief it promises) remains more of a good idea than a practical reality in most Canadian cities. Many municipalities—especially in BC and Quebec—still don’t charge for water services based on levels of consumption. Environmental risk from mines and abandoned oil wells continue to represent potentially major liabilities on the public purse. And as our last report notes, Canada isn’t yet on track to achieving its climate targets.
In short, we still need new, more ambitious policy solutions to truly square the circle between environment and economy.
The ink on Ecofiscal’s legacy is far from dry. Some of these policies may take a while to shift from idea to practice. Yet as our environmental challenges grow more urgent, the need for stringent and cost-effective policy solutions will only increase.
I hope that future policy-makers will look to Ecofiscal’s body of work for guidance—not only the reports mentioned above, but also our blogs archive and on-demand online municipal course, which I’m happy to announce is now available at no charge.
And I hope that policy researchers and analysts from other organizations build on our work, identifying new insights for policy and new, creative, practical policy options. After all, Ecofiscal has shown that good policy can be smart, practical and possible… if we’re willing to work for it.