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Q and A with Elizabeth May

The Green Party of Canada leader shares her views on economics and environment

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Gauntlet: What is the Green Party's stance on economics?

Elizabeth May: Our approach is that economics can be green and be a healthy economic base for the country. We tend to have a lot of policy wonks in the party who are very committed to ecological fiscal reform. Moving taxes off of the things that we want in society, like income and jobs and moving it to things that we don't want like pollution and greenhouse gases. Our economics approach is very solid, very pragmatic, and wants to see our economic activity working to be of service to larger community and not the other way around. There is an imbalance in current society, we have too much focus on 'does it address corporate profits?' instead of thinking 'what does it do for the common good?' Our policies are strong economically, but not [in support of] an economy in isolation from the rest of the concerns that Canadians have about social justice, livable cities, responding to environmental threats and so on.

G: What do you think about the invisible hand? Do you think that markets will regulate themselves or do you think that we need to have a more "hands on" approach?

M: Of all the parties, we probably use more market mechanisms on environmental policy than the others. We're the only political party that wants to have a carbon tax. We call it a 'carbon shift' because we can then reduce income taxes and reduce payroll taxes. Clearly the invisible hand of the marketplace only works with those things that are in the marketplace. As long as the environment is essentially an externality--and as long as we haven't monetized carbon--the invisible hand of the market can't possibly work because it doesn't have value in the marketplace.

G: Is there anything else like a carbon tax that you would implement, or is a carbon tax enough?

M: No, it's not enough. We also need regulations, so at a certain level, the best impedance to innovation in business activity, comes from corporations striving to do more than the bare minimum, which is where regulations. We want to see excellence beyond that, but you have to have those minimum standards. You have to have energy-efficient regulations on refrigerators, large appliances; fuel economy standards for automobiles should be regulated. We'd have a cap and trade program to deal with the largest polluters. We'd also have investments in renewable, we'd have a major program on retrofitting the housing stock and buildings across Canada, even the current building codes aren't tough enough to make sure that we actually build the kind of housing stock today that is energy-efficient in the future, so going back and retrofitting buildings with more insulation, making them more efficient is a very good investment. In terms of our climate change plan, there are probably 200 separate measures. But they fall under the categories of fixing the tax system, getting the right signal to the marketplace, using regulations and a cap and trade program where we need it and investments and support for bringing on renewable energy.

G: Does traditional economics include the environment? Do you think there needs to be a shift in the way that economics as a subject is taught at universities?

M: Some of that is happening already, there is much more of a focus on ecological economics in most universities. There's talk about sustainability, there's more of that in the economics departments than there used to be. In addition to measuring our success as a nation, in terms of gross domestic product, we should also be looking at an index of well being, or a genuine progress indicator so that we measure how we're doing as a society, not just based on how much cash changes hands, but also looking at the real value in society. What's our literacy rate, what are our health outcomes, how are we doing as a society in terms of the capital stock of natural resources, are we living off the interest rates, or are we digging into the capital? Looking at those issues, there is a large role for ecological economists in designing the green economy of the future and getting that started now with university classes is an excellent trend.

G: Does the Green Party support the Kyoto accord?

M: Absolutely, the Kyoto protocol is the only legally binding mechanism negotiated, signed and ratified by 165 countries around the world. The negotiations for Kyoto, in a way, started in 1990 when they negotiated first at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Kyoto protocol is a creature of the [UNFCCC] that means we've been working through this process of negotiating these treaties for 17 years. You simply can't take a [UN] negotiating process and start from scratch. We can't throw the baby out with the bath water. The next round of Kyoto will probably have different mechanisms, will be designed slightly differently, but Kyoto is a process, not one step. There tends to be a lot of focus on that emissions reductions between 2008-12 will not be achieved by Canada, because we haven't tried. The efforts we have put in place were cancelled by Stephen Harper. We have a commitment to get as close to Kyoto commitments as possible, recognizing that we've lost so much time that we can't reach those targets but knowing that the next commitment phase will require steeper reductions. We must be prepared for that, we have to reduce our emissions.

G: There was a climate conference in Uganda this weekend. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was a lone figure in holding back environmental policy on a world stage. Did you want to comment?

M: It's really shocking and shameful. What Harper did was not just embarrassing today, but potentially damages the potential negotiations that will be happening in Indonesia on Dec. 3--the major UN conference on continued negotiation on what we do post-2012. The Kyoto treaty requires emission reductions between 2008-12 as a first step. They're negotiating, "what do we do for the second step? How deep do we cut? How many countries are in?" and post 2012 we need various deep emission reductions. By refusing to accept language that said 'we, as Canada, would be prepared to negotiate binding emission reductions for the next period,' we send a very negative signal to the UN negotiations, quite a dangerous signal. What we're doing is playing global saboteur. While the rest of the world wants to negotiate meaningful reductions of greenhouse gases, Canada is blocking action.

G: Do you think anything will come out of the UN climate conference in Bali?

M: It's critical they make progress, it's discouraging that our government will be there to stop progress. Any one government can block progress, Canada's role as a saboteur is not to be underestimated in preventing action in moving forward. There is one of these major UN negotiations every year, within Kyoto and within the Framework Convention on Climate Change. This is the thirteenth time that the Framework Convention on Climate Change has met and the third time that the Parties under Kyoto have met. They make some progress, generally, but they need to make a whole lot of progress to have the targets and timelines in place to move seamlessly into legal existence as soon as 2012 is over. By 2013, we need a whole new set of targets, so the challenges are huge. Bali must at least make progress and next year in Copenhagen, they have to seal a deal. We are running out of time.

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