Adam Radwanski presents a comprehensive summary of the Canadian carbon tax debate, from how the tax works to the ways it plays politically in this election year.

Getting Started

Appropriate Subject Area(s):

Social studies, current events, media literacy

Key Question(s) to Explore:

  • Why is Canada’s carbon tax likely to be a key election issue this year?

New Terminology:

Carbon tax, existential, incentivize

Materials Needed:

Globe article, the Internet

Study and Discussion Activity

Introduction to lesson and task:

With a federal election looming this fall, the Liberal Government is facing an uphill battle selling its plan to introduce a national price on carbon. When Trudeau took power, the provinces—most of which had Liberal governments at the time—were broadly supportive. However, several provincial governments are now Conservative, and all are leading fierce attacks against what they call a “job-killing carbon tax.” The federal Conservatives are positioning their opposition to carbon-pricing as a centrepiece of their coming election platform, although they have yet to lay out their own plan to meet Canada’s commitment to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Except for Maxime Bernier’s newly-minted People’s Party of Canada, all other major political parties acknowledge the scientific reality of humans’ role in climate change, but they differ on how best to address it. The Classroom Edition has previously produced lessons on this topic from an environmental perspective, but this lesson focuses on the role of carbon pricing in the election campaigns now starting to emerge. Students can benefit from a lesson in which they apply critical thinking to excerpts from the attached article by Adam Radwanski, to help understand the political tensions attached to this issue. Working in groups, they will address questions related to these excerpts, using the Internet, if necessary.

Action (lesson plan and task):

Set the stage by engaging students in a brief discussion about the election and carbon pricing. These questions/prompts can help focus the discussion (answers in parentheses for your benefit):

  • When is the next federal election? (October 21st, 2019)
  • One new party will be in this race—what is its name and who leads it? (The Peoples’ Party of Canada, led by former Conservative cabinet member, Maxime Bernier)
  • How many other major political parties will be competing? Name them? (Liberal, Conservative, Bloc Quebecois, NDP, Green)
  • How many leaders can you name? (Respectively, from above: Justin Trudeau, Andrew Scheer, Mario Beaulieu (interim), Jagmeet Singh, Elizabeth May)
  • What do you think will be some of the major issues in this campaign? (Answers will vary, but energy resources (pipelines), Aboriginal issues (pipelines), and the “Liberal carbon tax” could be among them)

Next, ask students to write down the first thing that they think of when they hear the words “carbon tax.”

  • Ask which political party comes to mind when they hear those words. Why?
  • Ask what opinions they have, if any, on pricing carbon.

Introduce a lesson related to media literacy. Before forming into groups, students will read the attached article by Adam Radwanski. Next, they are to work in groups to complete the following worksheet, using the Internet as needed (minimally, if at all). There will be a group discussion about their work when they’ve finished.


Answer the questions and complete the tasks following each of these excerpts from Mr. Radwanski’s article:

“There is a view in Mr. Trudeau’s camp that many Canadians will respect him for taking a principled risk and disqualify Mr. Scheer for his comparative unwillingness to take seriously an existential environmental challenge; the Liberals particularly hope it will help mobilize younger voters, key to their 2015 electoral success. The Conservatives believe they’ll be able to cast it as nothing more than a tax grab; they say their research shows their target voters prioritize economic and affordability concerns over the environment.”

  • How do you understand the term “principled risk.” What is the principle here, do you think? Do you respect Mr. Trudeau for “taking a principled risk”?
  • If the carbon tax is rebated to taxpayers, as the government says, is it fair to call this a “tax grab”?
  • If you were to vote in the coming election, would the Liberal position help motivate you to support this party?
  • If you drive a vehicle and if the Liberal carbon tax costs you an additional 4.3 cents per litre for fuel, would you consider that a reason not to vote Liberal?

“That’s going to place a premium on communication around tax season. Voters in provinces where Ottawa will be collecting and returning money can expect lots of advertising drawing attention to the rebate.”

  • What is the issue, and for which party, that will require this kind of communication?
  • If the amount of the planned rebate is as much or more than the amount a person may pay in a carbon tax, do you think it will matter when the rebate is processed?

“While Mr. Scheer has said his approach will be ‘comprehensive,’ he has made clear it won’t include carbon pricing. It may be in the same vein as Mr. Ford’s, which includes scaled-back emissions-reductions targets, and fairly modest commitments to industrial regulation and clean-technology funding.”

  • Scheer and Mr. Ford (premier of Ontario), among others, have described the Liberal plan as a “job-killing carbon tax.” If this is true, how might this tax kill jobs, do you think? Can you imagine a way it might actually create new jobs?
  • Given what you know about climate change, do you favour scaling back emissions-reductions targets?

“The level of taxation the Liberals have chosen may not be enough to meet the Paris Agreement commitment to reduce emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. And Canada is certainly not on pace to achieve much greater reductions that the United Nations’ climate change panel says are needed to avert environmental catastrophe.”

  • If the “price on pollution,” as Mr. Trudeau phrases it, won’t meet Canada’s commitments, why bother trying at all?
  • Do you think the Liberals are more likely to be criticized for doing too much or too little on climate change?

“Theoretically, the government should want that kind of reaction: Carbon pricing’s purpose is to incentivize decisions, such as taking public transit rather than driving, that lower emissions.”

  • How does a carbon tax motivate a person to take public transit?
  • If people are outraged at higher fuel prices due to the carbon tax, are they more likely to vote for a party that is “doing the right thing,” or to vote against that party because they don’t like to pay more for fuel?

Finally, what do you think?

  • Will the carbon tax be a major election issue this year?
  • Would it be an issue for you, if you could vote or will vote?
  • Do you think the current approach to meeting Canada’s commitment to the Paris Accord is sufficient, too much, or not enough?
  • Did you think the article by Mr. Radwanski was balanced or biased in favour of one position or another? Explain.

Consolidation of Learning:

  • Students discuss their reports in class or in a subsequent class.
Success and Additional Learning

Success Criteria:

  • Students can explain the reasons why the carbon tax issue may play a significant part in the coming federal election.

Confirming Activity:

  • Ask students to report on the kinds of messaging about the carbon tax that each party crafts as the election approaches.