The Ecofiscal Approach: Positive Energy Looks At Attempted Depoliticization On Carbon Pricing
Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission, which concluded operations in late 2019, is an example of an organization that aimed to depoliticize the carbon-pricing debate with non-partisan, academically-rigorous research and evidence, says a newly-released Positive Energy report from the University of Ottawa.
Although it did not really achieve its depolarizing aspirations, said Monica Gattinger, Positive Energy chair and UOttawa’s director for the Institute for Science, Society and Policy, the commission did have an important influence on the design of carbon pricing in Canada.
“What the study points to is that information and facts absolutely do matter, but process matters as well,” she told the Bulletin. “What the Ecofiscal Commission really underscored for us is the importance of multipronged approaches that don’t only lean on information, but that also bring people together in a collaborative fashion.”
Established in 2014 under the leadership of McGill University economics professor Chris Ragan, the commission set out to promote — across all government levels — pollution pricing policies through focused research and effective communication of research findings. The Ecofiscal advisory board included well-known thought leaders from politics, industry and civil society, who represented views from across the political, regional and sectoral spectrums.
As part of its approach, the commission never affiliated itself with governments or political parties, and it received its funding from non-partisan foundations.
“To us, what was really relevant about looking at the Ecofiscal Commission is that this is an organization that was focused predominantly on the issue of carbon pricing — a very contentious, divisive and polarizing issue for Canada along political lines,” noted Gattinger. “What the Ecofiscal Commission tried to do was to inject into the policy debate on this issue rigorous academic studies of the merits of carbon pricing.”
According to case study results, while the commission successfully influenced and shaped carbon pricing policies, partisanship and politics restricted its success in building cross-partisan consensus, and there is little evidence that the commission had an immediate, significant impact on the country’s level of polarization around carbon pricing.
Some interviewees for the study perceived the commission itself as too political and partisan, and these findings illustrate the dilemma that polarization may create for organizations focusing on information and evidence to create lasting policy change, notes Positive Energy researchers, which is in part due to a consistently supportive message on carbon pricing that raised concerns for some about lack of nuance and ideologically-driven analyses.
However, Ecofiscal work has informed the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, the Alberta Climate Leadership Plan, and the Ontario emissions trading scheme, suggest some of those interviewed for the study. The commission’s research was generally deemed credible and of high academic quality.
Gattinger said: “To us this is very interesting because what it underscores is that when we have these politically-divisive issues, particularly when they’re divided along partisan lines, the way in which politicians and political leaders interpret the ‘facts’ can be very subjective and can be informed by their own values, identities and party affiliations.
“However, once the government was interested in going down the path of carbon pricing, whether it was in Alberta or Ontario or at the federal level, then the availability of rigorous academic research really did have a significant impact on the policy choices that were taken.”
It might be too early to identify and evaluate the full Ecofiscal impacts on policymaking and the political debate over carbon pricing, the report adds, as while the organization ceased operations in 2019, its research remains in the public domain and the policy changes the commission helped set in motion may have long-lasting effects.
Positive Energy’s latest study results are directed towards, firstly, governments challenged with navigating those contentious political issues and divisions that exist with energy and climate issues, Gattinger told the DOB. They are also directed towards leaders in the energy and climate space, be they industry or Indigenous leaders, those in the non-governmental sector, et cetera, who want to identify models to build consensus on often contentious issues.
“And then, what are some of the limits to those models of consensus-building? If there’s one thing that emerges from this research, it’s that there are no silver bullets that’ll bring everyone together and secure consensus over what are very complex and contentious energy and climate issues. It’s important that we have a multiplicity of approaches to try to get to more consensus-based, collaborative approaches to energy and climate in Canada.”
This most recent case study is the third of a four-part series of studies that Positive Energy is releasing in order to identify what works when it comes to building consensus amid polarization over energy and climate change issues.
Research examines the organizations, their program or initiatives established to either address polarization (the Alberta Climate Leadership Plan and the Just Transition Task Force) or to foster consensus-building (the Ecofiscal Commission and finally the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy).