Feb 16 • 1HR 5M

Volts podcast: Gerald Butts and Catherine McKenna on Canada's carbon tax

A big & overlooked story.

David Roberts
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Volts is a podcast about leaving fossil fuels behind. I've been reporting on and explaining clean-energy topics for almost 20 years, and I love talking to politicians, analysts, innovators, and activists about the latest progress in the world's most important fight. (Volts is entirely subscriber-supported. Sign up!)
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In 2015, after nearly a decade of conservative rule, Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party won a majority of seats in the Canadian parliament and control of the federal government. Part of Trudeau’s election platform was a carbon tax.

The proposed tax had a few key features. First, it would only be imposed on provinces that did not have their own pricing system that met a few minimum requirements. And second, all the money collected from a province would be returned to that province as carbon dividends.

After years of vigorous advocacy and negotiations, Trudeau’s liberals got the tax passed through parliament. It was implemented in early 2019, just before another federal election that became widely seen as a national referendum on the tax.

Liberals won again. The carbon tax was affirmed. It’s going to stick — and rise to a whopping $170 a ton by 2030.

This is a startling success story for climate policy that was largely overlooked in the US. We, uh, had some other stuff going on. But it’s worth taking a closer look at how Canada pulled it off.

Gerald Butts & Catherine McKenna

Two people at the core of the tax pitch were Gerald Butts, who was principal secretary to the prime minister from 2015 to 2019 and Trudeau’s closest personal advisor, and Catherine McKenna, who was the minister of environment and climate change during the same period.

Butts and McKenna were in the trenches and they have the scars to show for it. Both of them noticed the piece I published on Volts in January on carbon tax refunds — and they objected to the conclusion that dividends did not make the carbon tax more popular in Canada.

So I had them on the pod! We talked about how the carbon tax was conceived, what enabled it to secure majority support (yes, they say, refunds were important), and where the politics of carbon pricing stand as we move into the 2020s. Not only were my spirits lifted — it’s nice to know there’s a sane country out there somewhere — I learned an enormous amount. I think you will too.