Observing the controversy surrounding New Brunswick’s carbon-pricing plan announced last week, something Karl Marx famously wrote came to mind. The context was slightly different, but Marx’s adage about history taking place “first as tragedy, then as farce” seems entirely fitting to describe Canadian governments’ feckless efforts to put a national price on carbon.

The tragic part took place last December when the prime minister and the premiers met about something they called “The Pan-Canadian Framework for Clean Growth and Climate Change.” As I wrote at that time, the plan itself was a dismally inadequate response to the threat of climate change. Worse, the political posturing around it practically guarantees that even its modest goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions will not be met. With the possible exception of the election of a Green-supported NDP government in British Columbia, nothing has happened since then to change that prognosis for the better.

So, cue the farce, New Brunswick’s venture into carbon pricing. In response to his government’s agreement at that meeting last December to put a price on carbon, Premier Gallant announced that from now on a couple of pennies from the existing and long standing motive fuel tax would be designated as a carbon tax and directed toward green projects.

The Pan-Canadian Framework presumably contemplated an increased gas tax, not a re-shuffling of the proceeds of the one that’s already in place. The carbon tax was supposed to start next year at the rate of $10 a tonne of carbon, which works out to 2.3 cents on a litre of gasoline. It’s supposed to rise to $50 a tonne – almost 12 cents a litre – by 2022.

Calling the old gas tax by a new name and declaring it a response to climate change is a neat trick if you can pull it off – especially if like the New Brunswick Premier you are facing a Provincial election next year. But some people are not easily fooled. After questions about the scam, federal Environment minister Catherine McKenna went on Facebook and observed that New Brunswick’s plan “does not create a new incentive to cut carbon pollution.”

That sounds about right, but unfortunately we are in the realm of farce, where facts and logic are devalued. A year ago, the Trudeau Liberals declared that if a province failed to put the $10 a tonne price on carbon by 2018, Ottawa would impose one. But as New Brunswick’s Liberal government  was performing its obvious charade, Minister McKenna gave the provinces a one-year extension.

As the Canadian Press reported:

OTTAWA — Environment Minister Catherine McKenna says a national price on carbon won’t be imposed on any province for at least another year.McKenna says carbon pricing legislation will be introduced sometime in 2018 and provinces will have until the end of that year to submit their own carbon pricing plans before a national price is imposed on those that don’t meet the federal standard.

A year ago, McKenna said provinces would have to impose at least a $10-per-tonne carbon price in 2018 but it appears some provinces will make it all the way to the end of the year before they have to actually do it. The price has to rise at least $10 per tonne a year until it hits $50 per tonne by 2022. Alberta and B.C. already meet the threshold and Manitoba intends to introduce a carbon price of $25 next year. Ontario and Quebec’s cap and trade systems likely meet the threshold but the rest of the provinces either haven’t yet got a plan in place or what they do have doesn’t mesh with Ottawa’s standard.

To recap the above dispatch: B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec are in on the project. Retiring Premier Brad Wall, on behalf of Saskatchewan (the highest per-capita GHG polluter in the country) thumbed his nose at the whole thing. The Liberal-led Atlantic Provinces are in – as long as they don’t have to actually put a price on carbon. And the federal Liberals want to keep the lip-service support of the Atlantic premiers without damaging them politically. Hence, we have a farce worthy of that other well-known Marx, Groucho.

New Brunswick’s performance last week at least had the virtue of transparency. Everybody knows it’s a sham. Nova Scotia’s version of Duck Soup was murkier. The legislature actually spent time during the fall session debating and approving a bill that was about putting a price on carbon. Conspicuously, the legislation lacked any details on what that price would be and who would pay it. That information may be in regulations to follow sometime next year- but don’t expect a price that will “create a new incentive to cut carbon pollution.”

As ludicrous as they are, the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia performances are definitely off-off-Broadway. The major travesty remains at the national level. As anyone paying attention already knows, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have already met the GHG emission reduction goals – 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 – that the price on carbon is supposed to achieve. Their continued empty talk in support of a national price on carbon stems from some combination of Liberal solidarity and political greenwashing.

The pathway to any progress under the Pan-Canadian Framework lies through the western oil-producing provinces. That means Saskatchewan coming onside and Albertans denying victory in the 2019 provincial election to Jason Kenney and his anti carbon-tax platform. And even if those unlikely events transpire, and if every province has a $50 per tonne carbon price by 2022, GHG emissions will hardly budge. And big business and some of the big polluters know it.

According to the industry-funded “The Cost of a Cleaner Future: Examining the Economic Impacts of Reducing GHG Emissions” a carbon price of $200 a tonne by 2025 will cut emissions by a mere 12.7% – about six-per-cent of the cuts needed to meet the modest 2030 national target.

The report by the Conference Board and the Canadian Academy of Engineering suggests that the 2030 window is already closed and policy makers need to talk to Canadians about the trillions of dollars of investment required for the massive transformation of the energy system necessary to meet the mid-century GHG targets agreed to in Paris two years ago.

But given the skittishness about adding a couple of cents to the gas tax, a gargantuan political transformation will have to take place first – which is where the farce turns back into tragedy.