Clean Technology Canada

Bill C-372: Banning fossil fuel ads does not go far enough

March 20, 2024
By Canadian Manufacturing

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Photo: ©Sutthiphong/Adobe Stock

When the New Democratic Party MP Charlie Angus proposed private member’s bill C-372 in February to ban fossil-fuel advertising it is unsurprising that he struck a nerve with many. After all, standing up to fossil fuel interests in a natural resources economy such as Canada’s is unlikely to make you a lot of friends.

While the bill’s future remains uncertain, what is clear is that the debate it triggered has revealed interesting dynamics, and fault lines, at play within the Canadian economy and civil society.

Some reactions to bill C-372 show bad faith on the part of the lobbyists of the oil and gas sector — and illustrate still wide-spread ignorance about the existential threat of climate change. However, other lines of criticism thrown at Angus should be taken seriously, even if they ultimately fall short of being convincing.

Free speech versus harm

First in the list of criticisms is that this bill would unduly limit free speech. It is important to clarify that the bill does not concern individual free speech, but instead targets corporate communications.

The belief that corporations have a right of free speech is itself disputed both in Canada and the United States. More fundamentally, the right to free speech has to be weighed against the other rights at stake — including the right to live in a healthy environment.

As Bill C-372 states, “air pollution caused by fossil fuels leads to millions of premature deaths globally, including tens of thousands of premature deaths in Canada alone” — a claim which has been substantiated by a range of recent studies. These numbers are only set to rise.

One of liberal societies’ core values is the idea that people are free to do what they want, unless their actions cause harm to others. I can have a bonfire, but I cannot do so in drought conditions when the fire would put lives at risk.

The emissions from fossil fuel production and consumption put lives at risk through global warming and extreme weather and they reduce the quality of life through air pollution and the respiratory diseases it causes. Indeed, one study argues that the U.S. coal industry currently kills more people than it employs.

Allowing advertising for these activities adds insult to injury and infringes upon the rights and health of millions. It is hard to see how anyone could be against Bill C-372.

Too costly compared to what?

Some critics attack the analogy Angus draws between banning fossil fuel ads and the tobacco ban in the 1980s. Kelly Cryderman in the Globe and Mail, for example, asserted that “smoking is way easier to quit than oil” which is so central to our economy.

This critique insinuates that “quitting” fossil fuels would simply be too costly. It no doubt would be expensive, but the relevant question here is “costly compared to what?” A brief look at the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would put this claim to rest.

Meanwhile, a recent report by the Canadian Climate Institute has found that climate change will cost Canadians on average $700 a year over the next three years alone and as soon as 2025 “climate-induced damages will be slowing Canada’s economic growth to the tune of $25 billion annually, equal to about half the expected annual growth in our economy.”

You don’t have to read the fine print to get the idea that not quitting fossil fuels will be considerably more expensive than phasing them out.

Recognizing this, is entirely compatible with acknowledging the hard work many Canadians have put into fossil fuel extraction. A just transition requires providing them with new opportunities.

Furthermore, Bill C-372 asks no one to quit anything. It merely proposes to ban advertising fossil fuels. By any reasonable standard, this makes it a rather modest measure. Which brings us to a third point of contention.

Who are the radicals here?

When one reads claims that Bill C-372 allegedly requires us to “try wintering in Canada without fossil fuel energy,” one wonders whether the critics in question were reading some survival magazine instead of Bill C-372. But their intentions are clear.

They are working to portray the bill as a radical proposal formulated at the fringes of the political spectrum to the detriment of working people.

The consensus position among mainstream economists today is that fossil fuel production and consumption are inefficiently high, because their social and environmental costs – deaths, lung diseases, wildfires, atmospheric rivers, etc. – are not adequately reflected in market prices. Carbon taxes provide a potential remedy, but they remain a mostly under-utilized mechanism in most countries, including Canada.

If carbon pricing via taxation is the mainstream, what would be a truly radical approach to the climate crisis? Perhaps doing away with the limited liability of fossil fuel corporations, exposing them to trillions of dollars of damages in the future? Or nationalizing the industry to progressively wind it down? But banning fossil fuel advertising? It’s a drop in the bucket. A modest step at best.

It’s always hard to change one’s ways, both for individuals and societies. The worst possible attitude is to be in denial about what is required. Given the existential threat of climate change, the true radicals here are those opposing Bill C-372.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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