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Implementation of a carbon tax: The Canadian precedent

May 8, 2019


Elizabeth Mayer

Combating climate change has become an increasingly pressing public policy concern on the global stage. Human-induced climate change is in part brought on by excessive greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions which are linked to habitat loss, rising global temperatures, unpredictable weather patterns, and other challenges across the planet.[1] Of these GHGs, carbon dioxide has been identified as one of the most crucial emissions to reduce in order to prevent warming above 2°C.[2] The World Bank, United Nations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and various other organizations believe that carbon pricing is an efficient way to reduce GHG emissions, as it puts a price on the negative externalities of carbon emissions.[3] Consequently, various carbon pricing schemes have been enacted in the Denmark, Finland, Sweden, a variety of European Union countries, Japan, Iceland, and Australia.[4]

In North America, Canada has been a leader in pricing carbon emissions, and the province of British Columbia in particular has led the way with a carbon tax implemented in 2008.[5] Ten years later, Canada is implementing a similar carbon tax for all provinces without adequate carbon pricing measures as part of their plan to foster sustainable economic growth and cut GHG emissions to combat climate change.[6] However, just south of British Columbia, the state of Washington failed to pass a similar carbon tax first in 2016,[7] and again in 2018.[8] For many years Canada has followed the United States’ lead on climate change policy, which makes it surprising both that British Columbia was able to pass a carbon tax in 2008, and that Canada would be willing to federally implement a similarly structured carbon levy backstop in 2018. In this paper, I argue that British Columbia was able to pass this carbon tax because it had the social conditions to find this policy favorable, and a majority party with enough political capital to implement this policy. I then argue that Canada was willing to implement\ this broader federal carbon tax policy because it had the similar social conditions and political capital to push this measure through at the federal level.

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[1] “Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change,” November 2016,

[2] “Declaration of the Premiers of Canada: Quebec Summit on Climate Change” (2015),

[3] “Working Group on Carbon Pricing Mechanisms Final Report,” Final (Canada: Environment and Climate Change Canada, 2016),

[4] “Working Group on Carbon Pricing Mechanisms Final Report,” Final (Canada: Environment and Climate Change Canada, 2016),

[5] Kathryn Harrison, “The Political Economy of British Columbia’s Carbon Tax,” Working Paper, OECD Environment Working Papers (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2013).

[6] “Pricing Carbon Pollution in Canada: How It Will Work,” Government, Environment and Climate Change Canada, May 18, 2017,

[7] “Washington Initiative 732 — Create Carbon Emission Tax — Results: Rejected,” The New York Times, August 1, 2017, sec. U.S.,

[8] David Roberts, “Washington Votes No on a Price on Carbon Emissions,” Vox, September 28, 2018,