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Could a carbon tax have political legs?

In British Columbia, a carbon tax wins popular support.

The Chevron Burnaby Oil Refinery sits in the inner harbour of the Burrard Inlet in this view from West Vancouver, British Columbia Apr. 29, 2008. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

TORONTO — Americans who couldn’t care less that British Columbia had an election last week are in good company — most Canadians living outside the west coast province feel the same way.

In fact, many Canadians would be hard pressed to name any premier — similar to the governor of a U.S. state — apart from their own. There are only 10 of them, but a vast geography and small population have made parochial regionalism a defining element of Canadian identity.

Yet provinces have been known to launch initiatives so attractive that the federal government eventually transforms them into national programs. The most famous example is medicare, Canada’s publicly financed health insurance for all residents, which emerged from a 1947 policy in Saskatchewan.

A policy with similar trailblazing potential was implemented in British Columbia last July, under Premier Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government. With the new policy, the province became the first jurisdiction in North America to fight global warming with a tax on carbon emissions.

Last week, British Columbia’s Liberal government achieved another first by being re-elected while running on a carbon tax platform. The feat breathed new life into a policy considered essential to combating climate change by many scientists, but feared as a vote-killer by many politicians.

Campbell’s resounding victory is timely. A United Nations conference will take place in Copenhagen in December on greenhouse gas emissions cuts beyond the Kyoto Protocol, the sputtering international treaty that expires at the end of 2012.

North American governments heading to the conference have been loath to consider a carbon tax. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, U.S. President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats instead propose a more conventional “cap and trade” system to fight global warming. (Both Obama and House Democrats propose plans that fall far short of the 25 percent cut in emissions, below 1990 levels, that most scientists insist is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.)

Essentially, a capped system sets a limit to the amount of carbon gas targeted industries can spew. Companies that emit less than their limit can trade what is left of their allowance — their credits — to companies that have exceeded them. The European Union has used this system for several years.

A carbon tax is simpler: It places a direct tax on the global warming gas. The British Columbia government imposed a $10 (CDN) per metric ton tax on the carbon produced by gasoline, diesel, natural gas, heating fuel, propane, aviation fuel, kerosene and coal.