Prosperity before climate change action?

Hoax press release puts spotlight on Canada

This morning a group of protesters rolled out the welcome mat -- literally -- for Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, who arrived in Copenhagen today. They mingled with Christmas shoppers outside the Canadian embassy by the main shopping drag in Copenhagen. There was a quirky element to the protest, with a gift basket of treaties for the prime minister to sign presented at the embassy door, but the atmosphere was serious. Speakers included Naomi Klein, who has been very prominent on the activist circuits this week.

The demonstration was organised by the Indigenous Peoples of Canada and called for a stop to the extraction of oil from the tar sands region in Alberta. Tar sands mining is the most energy-intensive and environmentally damaging method of extracting oil. It also destroys Canada's boreal forests, which store a vast amount of carbon.

Canada also figured prominently on the climate change blogosphere today. A hoax press release, which was picked up by the Wall Street Journal, raised false hopes among Canadian campaigners. It outlined a drastic shift in the country's environmental policy, doubling greenhouse-gas reduction targets to 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020. But Ottawa responded quickly with a statement saying: "Canada's binding responsibility is to supply the world -- including its burgeoning developing portion -- with those means of transport, health and sustenance that prosperous markets require. Stopping short of these dictates would violate the very principles upon which our nations were founded, and endanger our very development."

"Without the dynamism of our oil sands industry, we in Canada would not have the energy -- moral, financial and literal -- to develop the alternative energy future the whole world craves," says Bruce Carson, a special adviser to Environment Canada.

Also released today was the Climate Change Performance Index report. The report was produced by the NGO German Watch, and ranks nations according to their environmental achievements. Canada was ranked 56th, out of 57 countries. Draft regulations on cap-and-trade in the country have been repeatedly delayed and are not expected until late 2010 at the earliest, while emissions continue to increase at 26 per cent over 1990 levels. In the past few months, the present administration has made it clear that it will ape US environmental policy, but continues to lag behind its neighbour in reducing emissions and investing in renewables.

Canada, the only nation to drop out of the Kyoto Protocol, has shown today that it will continue to put prosperity before climate change prevention. It could be a huge obstacle to achieving a transformative agreement this week.

Photo: Getty
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Theresa May's U-Turn may have just traded one problem for another

The problems of the policy have been moved, not eradicated. 

That didn’t take long. Theresa May has U-Turned on her plan to make people personally liable for the costs of social care until they have just £100,000 worth of assets, including property, left.

As the average home is valued at £317,000, in practice, that meant that most property owners would have to remortgage their house in order to pay for the cost of their social care. That upwards of 75 per cent of baby boomers – the largest group in the UK, both in terms of raw numbers and their higher tendency to vote – own their homes made the proposal politically toxic.

(The political pain is more acute when you remember that, on the whole, the properties owned by the elderly are worth more than those owned by the young. Why? Because most first-time buyers purchase small flats and most retirees are in large family homes.)

The proposal would have meant that while people who in old age fall foul of long-term degenerative illnesses like Alzheimers would in practice face an inheritance tax threshold of £100,000, people who die suddenly would face one of £1m, ten times higher than that paid by those requiring longer-term care. Small wonder the proposal was swiftly dubbed a “dementia tax”.

The Conservatives are now proposing “an absolute limit on the amount people have to pay for their care costs”. The actual amount is TBD, and will be the subject of a consultation should the Tories win the election. May went further, laying out the following guarantees:

“We are proposing the right funding model for social care.  We will make sure nobody has to sell their family home to pay for care.  We will make sure there’s an absolute limit on what people need to pay. And you will never have to go below £100,000 of your savings, so you will always have something to pass on to your family.”

There are a couple of problems here. The proposed policy already had a cap of sorts –on the amount you were allowed to have left over from meeting your own care costs, ie, under £100,000. Although the system – effectively an inheritance tax by lottery – displeased practically everyone and spooked elderly voters, it was at least progressive, in that the lottery was paid by people with assets above £100,000.

Under the new proposal, the lottery remains in place – if you die quickly or don’t require expensive social care, you get to keep all your assets, large or small – but the losers are the poorest pensioners. (Put simply, if there is a cap on costs at £25,000, then people with assets below that in value will see them swallowed up, but people with assets above that value will have them protected.)  That is compounded still further if home-owners are allowed to retain their homes.

So it’s still a dementia tax – it’s just a regressive dementia tax.

It also means that the Conservatives have traded going into the election’s final weeks facing accusations that they will force people to sell their own homes for going into the election facing questions over what a “reasonable” cap on care costs is, and you don’t have to be very imaginative to see how that could cause them trouble.

They’ve U-Turned alright, but they may simply have swerved away from one collision into another.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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